home, Charles


The Adriatic Coast :


Everybody has a cousin on the Adriatic
Playing Scheherades
"You're going slow" versus "You're going very fast"
Abruzzo and Umbria :
From the Coast into the Hills
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille
Bicycles as a sideline to mopeds, and vice versa
Hill towns
Tuscany :


The First Barbarians
The Barbarian Invasion of San Gimignano
Life is a Football Game, or is it a Bicycle Race ?
The Alps:
Revenge of the Rim
When the rain comes they run and hide their Heads
dates and mileages

Everybody has a cousin on the Adriatic

When I rolled off the boat in Brindisi, no local hotel boys lured tourists to their hotels. No buses or trains waited to collect tourists and whisk them away. No waiting relatives waved. No taxi was at command, no train, not even a bus. Only a concrete lot stretched out along the harbor. An endless parade of trucks drove across the industrial parking lot to customs, while a handful of tourists stood in the emptiness wondering what to do next. I rolled off the boat ramp and waved good bye to two Japanese girls I had met on the boat. On a bicycle still seemed the best place to be, even if my bike wasn't in the best place to be.

The Puglia coast, as it turned out, was a tourist frontier, not the way that Mongolia, Afghanistan or the North Pole are tourist frontiers, but the way that New Jersey, Long Island, and Gary, Indiana are tourist frontiers. I wouldn't say that nobody goes there. It's just that the people who go there are greatly outnumbered by the people who are trying to get away from there.

The next two days were, as W.C. Fields would have said, "fraught with eminent peril".  I had planned to head North along the Puglia coast, but that's easier said than done on a bicycle. I just found out that the Adriatic coastal road North of Brindisi was reserved for toll paying cars and trucks. Plan B took over, parallel the coast at some distance to circumnavigate a whole row of metropolitan centers of congestion, I had just discovered on the map. This would lead me all the way North beyond Bari. Then I would cut back to the coast as soon as feasible. Okay, rolling bike tires speak louder than maps. Let's do it. I whirled down a straight flat narrow road,  lined by grid spaced orchards, and was sucked along by traffic. Shoulder high walls built from stacked stones had replaced shoulders on the road. I was barreling along North by North West in bowling alley like roads, not quite sure if I should feel like a bowling ball or a bowling pin for the cars.
So, just how flat was it ? Here are some sadistics. The Italian Adriatic coast gets the Pancake prize with 20 feet of climbing per mile, followed closely by all of Germany/Austria combined, with 31 feet per mile. Bicycling mountain goats are clearly happiest in Greece, with a top 77 feet of climbing per mile. These figures are to be taken with a pound of salt. Avocet50 air pressure measurements are not temperature compensated. However, large figures like this tend to eliminate errors and allow a good relative comparison.
Italian Adriatic Coast
6.4kf/309miles = 20feet/mile
79.7kf/1509miles = 52feet/mile
90.2fk/1170miles = 77feet/mile
50.1kf/1625miles = 31feet/mile

Nothing is perfect. Everything is a trade off, including carrying a tent and sleeping bag on a bicycle. Or to put it more obtusely, miles ridden lugging along heavy never used equipment outweighed hassles, I was bound to experience for having to do without them. Or so I thought. This may seem unusual to self sufficient camping tourers from North America. But distances between towns in Europe are short. Reasonably priced hotels and rooms abound. At the end of today I wasn't so sure about all that.

After, a comfortable day's worth of miles, 60 or so, I started asking about rooms. There were none. Whatever hotels existed, appeared permanently full. I was still trying to circumnavigate Bari, Bitonto, Bitetto, Modugno, and other figments of boxy rebarb construction. However, if you circumnavigate Bari, you run into Bitonto. And if you circumnavigate Bitonto, you run into Bitetto. You get the picture. It's a subdivided megalopolis. A few interesting old city cores waited to be be discovered. But you had to look selectively, focus your gaze like a postcard shot, ignore 99 percent. I finally reached the Adriatic coast again North of Bari. Twenty miles later and the hotel situation showed no improvement. Giovinazzo, Sto. Spirito, Bisceglie - different name - same town - same situation - another 20 miles - another 20 miles worth of tiredness.

In Molfetta, I managed to hunt down a room costing about 3 times what I was used to spending. I decided to scout around some more and return in case of finding nothing. - I found nothing.  - By that time the room was occupied too. At this point, this should probably not come as a complete surprise. But sometimes the mind works in stubborn ways. Exhaustion started to charge me the going rate in frustration, freely convertible to anger on the open market.  I started cursing the Adriatic coast to metro hell as I pedaled North. "What's with these characterless concrete box houses everywhere anyway ? I've heard people say a lot of bad things about the communist style apartment blocks in Eastern Europe. But you know what ? The Capitalistic version isn't any better. Any existing coastline was hidden behind blocks of houses, choked with traffic, garbage and pollution, or fenced off by eating/drinkin establishments, so they can charge you what you what you've just worked for all day, for a glass of sugar water, while you sit and rot !."

Sorry, just had to get that out of  my system.  The next hot accommodation tip came from a group of old men dressed in conservative Italian black suits. They played cards next to the always busy streets. "Hotel Garden" they yelled like Caesar to the troops, drawing me a rough map on back of one of their used score sheets. The map led me away from the coast again, through housing developments, shopping centers, parking lots, screaming cars and people, to the Autobahn. Ten miles later, I found myself across from a walled in complex, with remote controlled tire spikes at the entrance. No, this was not a prison. The clue for this was the tie and formal attire the man behind the tire spikes was wearing. In prison they don't carry your leather luggage to your room. Women inmates don't wear dead animal hides slung around their shoulders. And they don't display four stars over the gate. This was Hotel Garden, and the stars were code for "guests not inclined to spend a minimum of 150 dollars a night for subservience need not apply. "Hotel Garden, romantic retreat in the shade of the Highway, featuring tire spikes, special protection for Mafia bosses", yup, just what I was looking for. Not really. I began to see the world through red colored eyeballs. - No, I didn't give up, not yet. I retraced my way through housing developments, shopping centers, parking lots, screaming cars and people, to the coast. While grocery stores were still open for business I shopped for food to get me through the night, one way or another.

This was an impossible riddle. This was a string of large cities, teeming with traffic, people, industry and commerce; and no reasonable places to spend the night. But then again, ever tried finding a place to stay on Long Island ? I guess everybody has a cousin on the Adriatic, a relative to spend the night with, except me. Yes, I passed a garbage clogged campground a few miles back, but that was not an option.

Due to the lack of options I just kept on riding, hoping something would change sometime. It did change. It got dark. Then I got lucky. In Trani I found a hotel without tire spikes with what appeared to be normal people at a normal price. - Funny how you can redefine "normal" while exhausting yourself during the last 20 miles of a 100 mile day, while the sun is setting. Funny how the definition of normal changes too.

Even if you fall on your face, you're still moving forward.
Robert C. Gallagher

An express train screamed by at 60 mph and shook the platform. A gust of garbage blew by in its wake. I sat at the run down Trani train station and watched the trains go by. I needed a day to consider my options, and work on my attitude. A call home to Colorado revealed that I had received an invitation by mail, from Karen in Germany. We had been exchanging letters for about 5 years, on and off. We first met five years ago at a Frankfurt airport baggage carousel, comparing damages inflicted on our bicycles by the airlines. I had received an invitation for a ride through the Chek Republic, starting seven days from now. - "Sounded pretty good" ! Another express thundered by at undiminished speed. In its wake another storm of whirling paper garbage blew in my face. - "Yup, sounded pretty darn good!"

There was just one catch, getting the bike on a train. Everybody, including all the ticket clerks insured me this was not possible, at all (unless you pack it disassembled into a box, in which case it is no longer a bicycle, but a collection of parts that can be turned into a bicycle ). Can this be ? The land of Campagnolo, racing idols, youth cycling summer camps, and no way to take a bike on a train ? Not even for exorbitant amounts of bribery ? But I wasn't quite prepared to go that far yet. True, none of the trains had baggage cars, or the little telltale white bicycle signs on any compartments. "I suppose I could attempt to stash it in the luggage rack above the seats, as I had done in Turkey once." But even there, that didn't turn out to be a lasting solution to the problem. True, all day long I didn't see a bike transferred, on or off a train. Later in the North, I met a group of cyclists who had come to Verona with their bikes on the train, with legal tickets. There I also saw the white bicycle signs on some compartments, the sign for bicycle storage. In the South, I saw none of that.

Playing Scheherades

And so I hobbled out of town on my bicycle the next day, feeling a little tired and defeated, hoping for improvement in my mental condition. I would visit Karen as soon as I got the chance, either by train, or continuing on my bike. After some miles the mood improved. Actually, Italians were really helpful with the various questions and problems I presented to them, I finally realized, pedaling along between fragrant onion fields. A recent absence of traffic made the heart grow fonder.

I was in the largest superalimentari on the tour so far. I squatted in the personal hygiene isle, motioning as if to fill up a camp stove and construct a fire, so that I could cook. The store clerk watched intently studying my every move. Other shoppers carefully sidestepped the spectacle so as not to disturb it. I was playing scheherades with the store clerk. I tried to get the idea across that I was looking for butane camping gas.The clerk led me to the cooking utensils.- No, not quite. But I had showed definite signs of improvements in this game of scheherades, compared with my last work Christmas party, when forced to play scheherades with the boss. Encouraged by this partial success, I said what I wanted, "camping gaaazz, cumping gas, cumping gus". I tried a creative series of intonations of how a language could intonate an "a". The last one seemed to work best. He started saying something about a bombola. - Yes that was it, definitely a bombola of some sort, a camping bombola. - Sorry, they don't carry bombolas in Italian superalimentaris. - Still I got my question answered, partial success. I was still wondering why I had such difficulties playing that darn scheherades game at that stupid Christmas party.

I was spurred on by the enthusiasm with which the clerk had reacted to my problem. So why not try another one, to help me find a favorite supper item, freeze dried Maggie asparagus soup. "No capicho" he said without looking up from his carton of cans, and without missing a second in stacking the shelves, throwing a can from one hand into the other with the lightening speed of an expert juggler. Hm, must be a career clerk. Some people take their role in life so seriously. You give them a part to play, and they really get carried away ! I finally found the soup myself with lots of clickety clack SPD walking. I still needed some gas to heat it with.

While asking directions, my Italian phrases invariably lapsed into Spanish. I knew many more Spanish words than Italian words. To an outsider, Spanish and Italian have similarities. Italians and Spaniards will of course deny this, but they'll understand anyway. I could tell they understand, because they started correcting me. "Ciento ?" an Italian said to me with the look of disgust. "chento!!!!" he sang melodically. A person proficient in one language, can often get the drift of what's being said in the other language. "Un camping mercado ?" - "Adritto, adritto, sempre adritto" said a shop owner, enunciating loudly and slowly like an Italian language teacher giving his first all important lesson trying to make a good impression on his new pupils. "Une, due, Semaphoro" he gestured like a senator giving an election speech, waiting for each phrase to settle in and be repeated. "Une, due, Semaphoro" I practiced. I found the camping store too. C200 camping gas containers were more difficult to acquire here than in Greece so I stocked up.

"you're going slow" versus "you're going very fast"

I rolled North out of Trani on a perfectly flat coastal plain, and the biking improved. It became emptier. But this was the weekend. Maybe everybody was away for the weekend. Bicycling in itself in a scenic vacuum is enjoyable. You don't even need breathtaking vistas, old castles, and roads winding through mountain valleys. There's just something special about rotating feet, while floating along feet above the ground with the grace of an albatross. It makes me happy. - Call it endorphins, or call it a personality quirk. The result is still the same.

The cookbook "diet for a small planet" recommends eating freshly cooked ungarnished rice every once in a while, to remember what it tastes like, without the overwhelming sauces meats and vegetables. I was biking without sauces meats and vegetables. I had bicycling in itself, bicycling ungarnished, bicycling pure, bicycling with little traffic. It was an improvement over the last days. If I was back home right  now, I would be riding the same road I had ridden a thousand times before. I would still enjoy the heck out of it. I was in a new place and that was reason to enjoy it even more. For the evening I headed inland, to the town of Lucera and things became even better than neutral.

It still took a couple of days to figure out what put the South into a bike tour through the mezzogiorno. It was suited old men like statues, sitting around a cobble stone town square in the evening discussing the world amongst themselves, noisy children yelling questions about my bike; the clickety clack of my shoes reverberating from town squares, every inch paved into submission, cobblestones worn smooth and round like a shaved head; going grocery vegetable shopping each evening in a vegetable store, not a super market, and handpicking the best peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and a new mystery vegetable, the store owner proudly looking on while I subject the vegetables to various pressure tests that would have gotten me thrown out of any grocery store North of the Alps.

A racer hammered along in blissful self absorption, like they do in any civilized part of the world. Riding along the Adriatic coast I had seen only one other cyclist sofar. Was this really Campagnolo country ? Or is all that Italian bicycling stuff just a ferry tale told by American bike stores, trying to make a buck with imports ?

But bicycling was alive and well as a spectator sport. I accumulated a whole dictionary of sign language, given by motorists as they passed. They all said one of three things, either "go faster",  "you're going slow", or my favorite, "you're going very fast". The most insulting of these "you're going slow" constituted an elaborate spectacle. The driver slowed down as he passed, opened the car door, and then put his palm close to the ground, as if he could touch it. - Very imaginative stuff indeed. They must think us North Americans are quite body language challenged. Often children and family filled the cars of these expressive men, absolutely nobody who looked like they ever rode a bike.

On the other side of the spectrum was "you're going very fast". This sign language vocabulary consisted of a hand held close to the face, the five fingers coming together in a point held upwards, and then shaking the fingers as if they had just been burned on a hot stove. The spectator sometimes accompanied this by blowing air out through a circularly opened mouth, as if trying to cool the fingers. The fact that I rode a fully loaded mountain bike, with no real ambitions to ever participate in the giro d'Itlia did not play a role in their emotional participation in my venture. It was supposed to make me feel like a valiant gladiator, racing to the finish line, knobby tires, thumb shifters, bread loaf strapped to the back. This really was Campagnolo country.

From the Coast into the Hills

Past Pescara, another major concrete nightmare by the sea, I had finally raced enough miles, eaten enough inches on the map, to be back on schedule again. Major traffic arteries thread  the outside of the Southern Italian boot, like laces that hold it together, along with major commerce, industry, oil tanks and train lines. It's the fastest way to get from one part of the country to the next, even on a bike. I turned 90 degrees to the left, started heading into the hills, and quickly found another Italy altogether. The road contoured hazy rounded hills and the legs responded joyfully. As the traffic thinned, I rounded another curve, and saw the first picture perfect Abruzzo hilltown, draped across a hill like a concrete glacier on a mountain, Loreto Aprutino. Hilltop towns with intricate clock towers and fantastic city gates started to emerge everywhere, like dreams becoming reality.

But it must have been a tough life up there, getting water and supplies up so high. Italian hill towns, looking so picture perfect romantic to modern tourist eyes, were placed on the hills for protection against invading barbarians from the North.  Living "up there" for the view, is a relatively recent phenomenon, made fashionable by the ever fashionable Californians.

Starting in the forth century AD, european tribes descended onto Italy from the North: Huns, Visgoths, Gauls, Alamani, just to drop a few names. Some, like Attila the Hun, came to conquer. Later, many like the Tuscans, were assimilated. They liked it just fine down here in the sun. North of the alps, Huns, Visigoths, Gauls and other tribes continued to chase themselves silly. Over the next centuries, the word got out. There's just more sunshine down here South of the alps. In the 6th century the Lombards and Franks descended into Italy to claim their part of the good life in the sun. In a way, Lombards, Tuscans and Franks are similar to the people who flock to Southern California to get their part of the action nowadays ( or yesterdays ). True, there are other reasons why people move. But sunshine or its absence does play an important role. Lombards and Franks were chased around by other tribes when they headed South. Today, people are more likely to be lured by more lucrative employment, rather than driven out by their neighbors.

This habit of descending from the alps to bake under blue Italian skies continues to modern times, in the form of tourism. I was to meet the spring's first wave of invasion later during the ride. Like in medieval times, hill town residents often have adapted to the demands of the Northern invaders. They now offer luxurious hotels, clad in decreped medieval walls, to diversion seeking Northerners. It all still looks so wonderfully medieval, so rustic, compared to old German villages that have been renovated into sterility. This is however a tough place for a bargain hunter, rusticity and all. Oh well, if forced into luxury it's only reasonable to enjoy it, I reasoned, as I eyed the four stars on top of my hotel for the night. The black white uniformed hotel waiter offered to help me carry my bags to the room. Thanks, that won't be necessary. As long as I can still ride the darn thing, I can carry the bags too.

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille

Leaving the hill town of Penne the next day, I saw a shimmering cutout of a snow clad mountain range ahead of me. The haze flattened the range to wallpaper. It was glued to the back of every juicy green pastoral mountain scene that emerged, as the road contoured upwards. The Apennine Mountains run the length of the Italian boot, and this was its highest most impressive range, the Gran Sasso. Its highest point, the Corno Grande peak reaches 2900 meters. Time to put on the climbing legs again. At about 3000 feet elevation, I thought I had passed straight from hell to paradise. Cars suddenly became as rare as they should be in a perfect world, maybe one every ten minutes. I could hear myself breathe again. I could feel myself think pleasant thoughts again, and anticipated every change in digits on my altimeter with rising expectations. At 3200 it started to drizzle. Well, that really wasn't what I had been anticipating all that much. My scenic wallpaper range disappeared into the clouds. At 4000 feet sunshine from heaven shone through strong and bright, illuminating a path through trees swallowing the road. Lungs, legs and head were happy in unison.

At 5300 feet I stopped to rest at a pass and marvel at the peaks of the Gran Sasso. They shone in perfect postcard light, above a bone dry plane ahead. I had reached a pass onto the campo imperatore, a high plain that looks another two notches more stark, than South Park in Colorado. It was the highest point of the trip sofar. I gave a quick glance over the bike, cables, spokes, tires, that sort of thing. Highest points on trips make me do that, - don't know why. To my utmost dismay, I saw a 2 inch crack in my "specially built for this trip" Mavi-512-super-duper touring-extra-heavy-duty-double-wall-rear rim. Hm, so that's why the wheel has been untrue to me for the last 1000 miles, since that day ride on Andros. So that's why that rear tire blue up at me, near Corinth, like a relationship requiring more attention. Boy, what a way to tell me, and a nice place you picked to let me down! "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille !" Never thought I'd be quoting Kenny Rogers. Like a failing relationship with a person, my failing relationship with my wheel had to be approached in stages. I realized immediately that talking our way through it wouldn't work (very perceptive, Sherlock). Oh well, nothing lasts forever, a rim, or a trip. Hopefully the first will last as long as the second. Heck, it's a double wall rim. That's what the second wall is for, isn't it? In case one breaks, you got a backup!"

Trying to convince myself that I was really no worse off than 10 minutes before, when I didn't know about the gaping gash in my rear rim, I got on the bike and headed for another pass on the Campo Imperatore. It was closed because of snow, and this was May 4th. And these mountains weren't even alps. They were definitely nonalps. I was impressed. So I headed for the remaining pass out of the frying pan shaped Campo Imeratore, direction l'Aquila. My rear wheel continued to express its displeasure with our relationship. It presented me with another demand for immediate undivided attention, a flat. Tube sealant didn't appease it. A new tube did.

Trying my best to ignore my badly behaving rear wheel, I rolled into Abruzzo hill town ferryland. "Castel di Monte" was the first model of a hill town. Like any model, it flaunted a dazzling photogenic side. When caught from the right angle it formed a perfect very steep cone shaped hill, every house shoulder to shoulder like soldiers, looking out on the surrounding hills in perfect strategic position. Like any model, Castel di Monte had its modern admirers. A few concrete rebarb hotel structures congregated around the town, looking remarkably out of place.

The next stretch of road was my favorite in all of Italy. The last car drove by an hour ago. Where is everybody ? At the coast, driving, I guess. Actually, a closer look at the map revealed that I was not on a road that served a practical purpose in life, such as as forming a connection between Peschara and l'Aquila, the two cities of any importance. The valley road was much better suited for that. The strength of this route lay in its beauty, not its practicality. I just needed to forget that I wanted to get somewhere, which really wasn't that difficult. I rode by a practically abandoned castle, perched on a limestone mountain in splendid isolation, more villages infringed upon by wild blossoming fruit trees, a few retired cap clad  men dumbfounded with questions where I came from. The modern rebarb house salad had disappeared, replaced by picturesque decay.

The next hilltop village gave such a striking image, I had to call it a day. Ste. Stefano was a small huddle of houses so intertwined it would classify as a single structure. At the center of the stone and mortar maze stood a single round defensive castle tower, erected as protection by the Medici family. The town was virtually abandoned. But brave souls were working with shovel, cement and mixers to reinhabbit the place. Outside the town a simple unobtrusive modern structure served as an albergo.  I was the only guest. The three women running the place, made me learn their first names before I got dinner. I got the long melodic vowels down pretty good after a while, but I was still severely lacking in accompanying expressive hand gestures.

I restocked my food supplies in Aquila, soup mixes, pasta, eggplant, peppers. You always got to be ready for that next picturesque stretch without stores, like the one I just passed. I got on the road heading North. But, what's this wet stuff ? I had forgotten that from time to time, it rains. Sometimes it pours. At the end of the day I was sheltering under an underpass, looking back, wondering at the magnificent landscape I was missing, with all those hilltop villages sitting in the clouds. How magnificent it all must look. Imagination was important here. Down valley, where I was heading, it was worse. I decided to skip the comparative hotel shopping part of the day. Somehow I wasn't in the mood. I could be thankful that they even let me in, dripping like a winter coat that was fished out of a swimming pool. I made it to Rieti, a medieval valley floor spa, with dark gloomy streets and high forbidding city walls.

Bicycles as a sideline to mopeds, and vice versa.

As I rolled out he next morning, the sun reappeared, but only for a while. But the previous afternoon of rain was like a glass of water in the face. I needed to do something about that rear rim, now ! The denial phase had ended. Besides, that split was now about 5 inches long. It had taken 5 weeks to go from "barely noticeable" to "definitely noticeable", and one day to go from "definitely noticeable" to terminal. I had to loosen the rear brake, so that the rim could pass between the brake shoes. I now had ABS breaking. The range of the brakes was such, that it could only reach the rim where it had split. It felt like I was riding on a soft boiled egg. I would consider myself lucky if I could just get to the next bike store. The number of males sporting racing bikes all around had increased drastically. I thought my chances were good. I was lucky and made it to Terni.

I was directed to a bike store where they also sold mopeds. They eyed my rear wheel like a team of doctors over a terminal patient. Apparently they had seen Shimano cassette hubs before. But they didn't quite know that it requires a special tool to remove. "Big Problem", according to them, I had to go to Milano in order to get it off. All this was a setup, so they could sell me one of their cheap wheels, with an attached screw on hub. However, when it came to action instead of words, they couldn't find a cheap wheel with attached screw on hub. They saw me as a business opportunity, a situation just begging to be taken advantage of, and decided to take it. And then they were incapable of even that. And so, the business opportunity was no more, and I was free to go. I decided that bicycles were a sideline to mopeds at this store. After 45 minutes they finally gave me the adress of a real bike store.

Cicli Falocco also sold bicycles and mopeds. Here the story turns. With lightning speed rims were lifted from the ceiling. Somebody gave me a "cicli Falocco" cycling cap to wear, and I was given a place to sit in the middle of the workshop. Being invited into the workshop was a special gesture of openness, like being invited into the kitchen to watch the meal being prepared. A master mechanic, maybe the father of the man running the store, started undoing the spokes on my destroyed rim with lightning speed. Somebody ordered spaghetti for me. Flawlessly racing billboard attired men, stopped by the store on their Banestos and Pinarellos. They inquired about little ouches on their bikes, a rubbing brake shoe, or about that brand new cranksset. How many Lire for a new, more virile crank set ? The father master mechanic kept on truing. I kept on chewing. In an hour and 70000 Lire later ( only 40 $ ), I had a rebuilt wheel. A bike store in need is a bike store indeed. He asked me to send a postcard from Colorado when I got back. I've send him one, and he's going to get quite a few more. If anybody in Terni is reading this, you got yourself one heck of a bike store there. I still wear that "cicli Falocco" cap with pride, and I don't even like racing jerseys because they're advertising. Some hearty handshakes and bon viajos later, I was rolling again, dumbfounded at my luck of having found them. I decided that mopeds here were definitely a sideline to bicycles.

Hill towns

I was free to be carefree again. I climbed and rolled and climbed and rolled into Spoletto. Hill towns became my latest collection craze on a bike. I had ridden through superbly scenic, often abandoned, very small settlements on top of hills, Abruzzo hill towns. Mostly I ran into them by accident. English speaking tourist publications don't describe and barely mention them. Reading up about area attractions gives added appreciation. But on a bike trip, surprising discovery is often the top thrill. - Hey look what I found - a castle on top of a mountain, and nobody lives there. I'll call this a category 1 hill town after this.

I also rode through scores of Umbria hilltowns, all well recognized tourist destinations. The more remote areas of Umbria may also hide category 1 hill towns, but I didn't encounter any. Despite the enormous amount of publicity about Umbria hill towns, they retain an old medieval character. Only a few if any, out of character buildings surround the town cores. I'll call these category 2 hill towns. The history of Umbrian hill towns goes back to the Umbrii. Roman historian Pliny, called them the oldest tribe in Italy. The Etruscans drove them into the Eastern valleys of Umbria. When the barbarian came flooding down from the North, the valley inhabitants  took to the hills, hence the Umbrian hill towns. Umbria has also been a hotbed birth cradle for saints of the catholic church, most famously Francis of Assisi. The record for the most saints is held by Montefalco, 8 saints in total. My route through Umbria lead me through Spoletto, Montefalco, Assisi, around Perugia and Lago Trasimeno and on to Tuscany.

Spoletto was my favorite Umbrian hill town. The narrow alleyways were small dark canyons. Rows of structural supports between the houses formed little bridges above the streets. Gray rough textured walls were fashioned in a medieval decreped way. A high promenade lead around the top of the hill, making a wonderful vantage point onto the Roman aqueduct and the lush valley below. I managed to find a private room in a stately old building in the medieval core. The walls were thicker than the window ladders were wide. A bed frame deserving of a dracula movie stood in the center of the room. The alleyway three floors down from my large wooden window looked like a dark moat. In the morning a friendly old woman served me a small breakfast in a small kitchen. It was located in an arch crossing the street like a covered bridge. I had breakfast with picture perfect view on the alley below in two directions. Spoletto sported cathedrals, museums, an amphitheater accompanied with Roman tales of rivers of blood, frescos, facades, enough  to keep the serious tourists occupied for weeks. But the duomo facade was clad in renovation garb, just a fly in the medieval ointment.

Leaving Spoletto, I was determined to maximize bicycling enjoyment by minimizing the roads. - Small roads from here on ! Connect the little dots with the little lines on the map, not the red blobs with the multicolor outlined autostradas. A particularly small road left from right here somewhere. I approached two respectable looking chaps in suits and started one of my customary "Dov'e (where is...) sentence constructions. Next thing I noticed, they were asking each other, what they thought I said, in English. I had approached two mormon missionaries. Having attended college in Logan Utah, I have some experience with mormon missionaries. But these two were quite a different bunch. Full of questions about where I had been and traveling by bicycle in general, one of them asked : "So, are you retired ?" I felt a little old after this question. Maybe old, but not too old for bike touring, that's all that counts. These two were my favorite missionaries. They made me feel like the missionary, a missionary of biking. Maybe that's the secret of a successful missionary. You have to make the other person feel like one. One of them was sure to hit the road after all this religious stuff was over. We figured out the Spoletto map together, and I was on my was to Assisi, and they were on their way to catch the train to Perugia.

Side roads are not a rare commodity in Umbria. I found so many, at times junctions forced me to stop every 5 kms to consult the map where the heck I was now. Cyclists outnumbered road junctions now men exclusively, attired as racing billboards, sprinting along on their own trip through the weekend.

In the middle ages people were tourists because of their religion, whereas now they are tourists because tourism is their religion
- Robert Runcie

Saint Francis lived an eventful life. Drinking and womanizing filled his formative years. - Nothing new here for catholic saints here. Phase two:  Illness and imprisonment planted seeds of contemplation. Abstinence and solitary wanderings followed next. In time he renounced his substantial  inheritance,  preached poverty, chastity, pure morals and renouncement of materialism. He moved from town to town with his own apostels, begging and preaching, much like Jesus did, or Indian Sardu holy men do. This didn't sit well with the catholic church of the time. It's tough to build cathedrals and be the force behind the Roman empire with pure and antimaterialistic attitudes. The truly amazing part of the story is that Catholic authorities made him a saint at all, and that his preachings influenced the church. He was canonized (saintified) after his death. He caused the first split in the Catholic church regarding ideological moral questions, centuries before the reformation.

If it's Tuesday it must be Assisi. Tourism showed signs of becoming just a bit more serious. This modern pilgrimage destination was thriving. Pilgrims like souvenirs just as much as the general population. They may have higher morals. But this does not mean they have better taste.  Plastic statue souvenirs, plates, holy ashtrays, and knick knacks abounded in the street shops. Contrast this with the huge wealthy  fine art collection that is reputedly scattered throughout the town's churches and museums. Contrast that with the life of moving from town to town, begging, preaching poverty. So with one eye we admire the purity and poverty of the latter Francis of Assisi. With the other eye we admire the wealth of the church, evidenced by its illustrious art collection connected with old Francis. Then we hang a plastic copy of him in the wind shield. We have wealth and poverty, kitch and art, stories of drinking ,womanizing and saintly behavior, all in the same place. Make any sense ? That's the way the world goes round.

The richly decorated cathedral and many other buildings in Assisi were camouflaged for renovation. Construction cranes were more prevalent in the town picture than medieval towers. It looked like a boom town. Construction workers were building medieval towers with all the vigor and scale reserved for constructing high tech office space back home. They were sprucing up the property value, gone mining for more tourist dollars. The values from the North were spreading South. After all, that's where all the tourists came from. That's where the tourist money is from.

I started heading into Perugia. But drilling my way around 4 lane autostradas, and city traffic didn't appeal that much. Riding was far more more tempting. Besides, you got to leave something for the next time. So I turned left ninety degrees and headed away from Perugia. I'll call this a category 3 hill town. It's really a modern city with a medieval city core on a hill.

My hill town journey continued through Tuscany. Add Chiusi, Pienza, Montepulciano, Siena, San Gimignano, Volterra, and col di val d'Elsa  to the hill town collection in South and Central Tuscany alone. With the exception of Siena, these are all category 2. With such a portfolio of hill towns it's easy to become just a bit hill town jaded. Siena, a medieval city was in a category by itself. The surrounding wall complete with moats is so complete, the bicycling mapless visitor requires some time to figure out how to actually get inside. Inside I toured the cathedral, that I believe has the power to turn any pickup driving, tobacco chewing- Red Green show loving, back country inhabitant to at least a mild church aficionado. I climbed the tunnel like spiral staircase to the bell tower above the amphitheater shaped town plaza, loving the view, relieving any accumulated homesickness along the way by talking to a good dozen Americans.

The First Barbarians

The Tuscan landscape appeals in its own way, like a large garden. It looks natural, but nothing like a wilderness, less dramatic than the mountains further South. Here, long rows of widely spaced cypress trees recede towards the horizon. Vineyards span rolling hills. A fortified town crowns every third hill. A clock tower and turreted city hall crown every town. In the Crete area, in the South, treeless hills seem frozen into flowing wave shapes. Thank God nobody put a gulf course there. Small roads thread all these features together. A few big ones do too, but we'll ignore them. Small, perpetually curvy roads follow grassy ridges, wooded valleys, and sneak into towns from the backside along medieval walls and public flower gardens with benches perfect for lunch in the shade.

The biking scene was changing again. None existed in the South. The racing crowd appeared first in the Abruzzo hills, exclusively male, traveling in packs, wearing colorful advertising. They increased in strength as I traveled North into Tuscany. Then a woman or two started to grace a racing bike. What an enlightened concept ! Certainly brightens up the scenery ! When I rolled into Asciano, I met the first group of barbarian Teutonic bikers from North of the alps. Let me also mention here, that I speak German. I lived there till I was fourteen. So I'll describe conversations in German the way I perceived them, but translated to English. If translation doesn't get across the flavor of the remark, I'll include it in parentheses. I didn't have to play scheherades anymore.

I was looking desperately for a place to get out of the rain. Yes, rain reminded me frequently, that I was now in a land with forests and all sorts of hairy wet land weeds - no palm trees anymore. I leaned my bike next to four other bikes outside of a bar. These bikes had seen rain before, clad in rain guards and heavy rubber around the panniers. These bikes are marketed as trekking bikes north of the alps. They have a touring geometry, and often sport all sorts of equipment that is foreign to US markets. They always have a generator driven front and back light, sometimes a combination of internal hub and derailer gearing, racks with extra stays, and most impressively, semi rigid panniers, that don't have to be stuffed to look appealing. As I found out later, these bags often contain remarkably wrinkle free pants with sharp creases, immaculate dress shirts, belts, and many other things I've learned to do without. You never know when you get the chance to ride to a formal dinner party.

I met the owners of the sturdy trekking mobiles in the bar. "Now, I am Eckhart, this is my wife, my son Uwe, and the daughter in law, Doris." It was an entire expanded bicycling family on a ride through Tuscany. The family that bikes together stays together. How's that for a biking advertising slogan ? Right away they treated me like a member of their party. Eckhart talked to me closely and sincerely, face to face. After 20 minutes I knew that he had to quit his job as a master flour mill worker, because of asthma. He was now retired and  refocusing his life around bicycle touring. Doris liked to tease him about his expertise on everything connected with bread and flour. Uwe was a network engineer for compuserve, and new to biking. We made plans to all have dinner together.

First a church visit was on the agenda. "Yes, that Jesus has a very peculiar smile on his face. And that angel is giving such a shy look, as if to say ochch" ( ochch is untranslatable ). Doris read a long passage from a thick tourist guide elucidating artistic peculiarities. I remembered how church visits are integral parts of the refined European tourist experience. It's true, you've got to get your share of culture on the bike. Eckhart let the women pick the restaurant. Wise move. I always get into trouble with that decision too. We got down to substantial topics pretty fast, bike tours, careers and their importance. I told them how, once upon a time, I lost a girlfriend. It happened after our first long ride together through Mexico. - "Well, maybe you should have started a bit easier, Holland perhaps" said Eckhart's wife, in between chewing ye old Gargonzola pizza. - How true, flat bike paths instead of dysentery in the jungle. - It was a pizza with salad on top. - Very practical, saves on having to buy one extra. We clanked our wine glasses together, and I remembered an old important custom. You have to make eye contact with everybody as the glass rings, and exchange facial expressions of deep understanding. I was all of a sudden really looking forward to riding and visiting in Germany again.Uwe, Doris and me sat in a sidewalk cafe late into the night, oblivious to the carbinieris closing down the town. I got an invitation to the Stammberger Lake near Munich. But it was too far from my route this time around. I had a port of call in Suttgart, a couple of hundred miles to the West.

Barbarians coming across the alps to find sunshine always head South. I headed North. So I was on my own again the next morning. The next time I encountered barbarians from the North, a full fledged invasion was underway. It happened a couple of days later as I approached San Gimignano.

The Barbarian Invasion of San Gimignano

San Gimignano is a medieval Manhattan. Medieval feuding spurs tower growth. I could see them from every approach on the city, a dense cluster of gray square block towers, with a sparse architectural lookout on top spying out onto the surround hills. San Gimignano invites comparison with the Mani peninsula in Greece. Here in Tuscany the towers are higher, architecturally more varied, and an oddity compared to the surrounding villages. San Giminagno boasts only two feuding families, the Ardinghelli and the Salvucci, compared with everybody against everybody on the Mani. During the times the town was united, it managed to feud with surrounding towns, Volterra and Poggibonsi. Disease and death, the great medieval equalizer, put an end to it. But even back then economic reasons played a role. The pilgrim trade collapsed. War usually destroys both parties involved, not just one. But the San Giminites managed to keep many of the towers standing. After the "black death" devastated the town, the Ardinghelli family applied to join a higher power, the Florentine city state. Between equal families, the towers were a dangerous sign of dominance. For the Florentines, they were inconsequential. Fifteen of 72 stand proud and tall today, and only a small number of modern buildings surround the medieval core. It's a very attractive town. Yes, and it does attract people.

When I reached San Gimignano groups of racing jersey clad barbarians invaded bakeries and grocery stores, buying all food in sight, sometimes eating half of it in the check out lines consisting exclusively of other bicyclists. Parked bikes formed fences in every outdoor cafe in the central town square - the medieval look with a touch of Lycra for contrast. I saw racing bikes, trekking bikes, every conceivable shoe foot interface, jerseys, knickers, creased pants, blouses, handlebars pointing up down and curving in every direction, and of course Lycra in every shape color and condition. It was a bicycle bazaar, including all sorts of bizarre bicyclists.

Even barbarians from oversees (like me) were participating in the invasion. A group of 5 New York lawyer students sat around the San Gimignano fountain waiting for one another. Waiting for one another doesn't stimulate group enthusiasm tremendously, especially if the trip is limited to 10 days, as theirs was. One student lay spread out as if on a beach, reading "under the Tuscan sun" under the Tuscan sun. Leaving San Gimi I passed an entire army of "backroads" cyclists. That's "backroads" as in "backroads commercial touring company". Every "backroads" tour member rode a shiny red Cannondale bike with the Backroads company emblem blazing on it. - Builds group unity I guess. At every turn special little cardboard signs were erected showing them the way. This is fine and well for not getting lost, but it doesn't exactly encourage you to figure out where you are. So stopping every 3 kms at every intersection to consult the map had its good side, I reasoned. The backroads group was friendly and sociable, and in a hurry. They had to get back to their jobs.  Well, I didn't feel like I had discovered this place, but at least I discovered that it had been discovered. I discovered a cycling Mecca. Even if meccas by definition have already been discovered quite exhaustively, it's still a discovery of sorts. Okay, I'll move on now. Anyway, this increases the odds of comparing notes with people who have been there. That's a good thing.

Life is football game, or is it a bicycle race ?

I had been looking for a place to call home, or at least base camp, a place for my stuff, home for the panniers at least, in order to engage in my second favorite activity after loaded bicycle. That would be unloaded bicycle touring from a stationary place. I finally found a place to specifications in Montecatini Terme. In Italy, I have had great luck with several Terme towns. A terme is a "bath". Tourists flock there, and hotels of great variety and quantities have been built to receive them. Montecatini must have hundreds of hotels, lining the streets shoulder to shoulder to suit every taste and budget, even mine. The whole city seemed to be hotels, interspersed with spas, fountains, manicured gardens, pruned trees, and other pleasant places to relax after a good days ride.

The day ride menu from here began with a ride to Firenze (Florence). It was a nice cloud covered day, perfect  to get sucked along by the traffic. I felt the need for a new electronic gadget, not that I don't have some already. But, surely somebody could come up with an electronic device, that counts cars passing from behind. There were thousands. Let's see, at about forty a  minute, for eight hours, well, you get the picture. The real surprise though, was that other bikers battled cars for inches on the road along side. Unlike me, most others were young aspiring racers, many in their teens, billboarded like the professionals. I imagine their fathers tell them it makes them tough to ride in heavy traffic on busy roads, passing mopeds, dodging Fiats and Ferraris, breathing visible air, drafting along in truck exhaust. It's the Italian version of football. It's like the American father telling his son it makes him tough to be pounced upon by a pile of bodies, while grasping on to a football under a human debris pile. Never mind the cartilage in that knee. It can be removed. Now, I didn't know if  fathers tell their sons that "life is a bicycle race", the way American fathers tell their sons "life is a football game".  But I deeply suspected it. The more cultures are different, the more they are the same.

When the rain comes they run and hide their heads

When you're in large gear, you go lickety split,
when you're in the small one, the seasons change.
Bob Voiland, Hurt City

When I woke up on the last day on Lago di Garda (May 19th), it rained. I should have taken the hint. Instead I took the hint when it stopped. It stopped only briefly. But I had already started riding. Fate had a cold wet road in store for me. From Riva I climbed up into the alps. Wet dolomite rock loomed out of the gray clouds. Dolomite and limestone are clifforming rocks, geologically speaking. Climbing out of Riva, sheer massive dolomite cliffs lined the road. Gray clouds parted sometimes and always revealed something vertical, something sharp piercing the clouds. It made me envious of a sunny day. But then fog would not have framed the few details that I could see so dramatically.

Looking back on the day, lunch proved to be one of the drier experiences. A dilapidated chapel, surrounded by a handful of alpine houses, offered protection to me and my pumpernickel. A farmer returned home and parked his dripping tractor in the shed, taking no notice of my pumpernickel consumption in his neighborhood. People enclosed in watertight automobiles with splashing tires zoomed by every ten minutes or so. The rest of the population remained inside warm houses with steaming chimneys. Studying maps in the rain wasn't appealing. On a day like this, pedaling like hell on a bike still is a great place to be. My body became an oven in the cold. I had to keep pedaling to feed fuel to the oven. I knew the engine was chugging along at a healthy pace when all the extremities were comfortably heated. It became more difficult to stop, than to just keep feeding the oven and watch it chug away the miles. An old Beatles song on the walkman kept me company : "When the rain comes they run and hide their heads, they might as well be dead, rain, rayaayayayne, I don't mind".

The next time I managed the intricate effort to pull out the wet map and unfold it, I discovered that I was erroneously heading for the ski resort Madonna di Campiglio. Outside of Ponte Arche I had planned to go up the North side of the Guidicarie Valley and then turn North towards Lago di Molveno. But I was going up the South side, cutting off the planned turn.  My actual route lead me through a several mile long tunnel with occasional windows looking over to the planned route. The planned route on the North side was spectacularly hewn into an overhanging alcove in the canyon walls. In perfect weather my road through the tunnel would have tortured me with thoughts of what I was missing. Traffic was of no consideration because there was none. But in the rain, the tunnel was the place to be. Dim yellow lights on the natural stone ceiling showed the way between echoing drips in the dark recesses where the light didn't reach. Compared with the relentless rain outside, this long tunnel possessed a certain coziness that would be unimaginable on a sunny day.  At the tunnel exit I threw a few pumpernickel and Camembert slices on the fire, and stoked the burner into action. Okay, if we're going to Madonna di Campiglio, an Italian version of Vail, we'd might as well make it a memorable workout, because I wasn't expecting the town to be very memorable.

Madonna was a pleasant place to spend the night. It was deserted, one open grocery store, with a good selection of carbohydrates, milk and vegetables, just perfect. Imagine Vail quarantined, a condo ghost town, and you got about the right picture. As only occupant of the only open hotel in the town center, I watched several inches of snow fall onto a mothballed chair lift from my 40$ hotel veranda. So why are you complaining about the rain and snow, I hear all you camping bikers say. You had a warm dry place to call cozy home for the night. And right you are. This was no camping ride down the Alaska panhandle. It was just enough to make you appreciate the dryness and warmth life has to offer a whole lot more, so far.

The next morning offered a break in precipitation to make my getaway over the snowy pass just behind Madonna, and ride the 20km 3000 foot decent into the Val di Sole. During the initial fire-up-the-belly-stove climb on an ice free road, I  heard a British voice melody coming from a bearded slender man walking next to the road : "That's quoite a cloimb, isn't it ?". After a short conversation we knew each other's basic positions in life, no wife, no kids, no compelling reason to hurry home darling, just three months and a vehicle, an ancient Mazda 4 wheel truck with a camper resembling a covered wagon for him, and a 15 year old mountain bike with peeling chrome for me. "I'm a gentleman of leisure, out for 3 months" he said. His name was Brian and three months in a Mazda was Brian's way of dealing with the aftermath of a divorce. He told me about his travels so far : "Sweeden grrrrret cuntry, but the midgis are hell !" - "Huh ?" - "Sorry, the mosquitoes", he translated for the American English impaired. "Just like Alaska !" I told him about my experience as a geological assistant there. "So yah're the gentleman that held the pole, arrr yah ??". - Smart ass. But actually he was right. Much of geological fieldwork consisted of measuring things on land, which requires the extensive upright holding of a pole by a geologically inclined fool like me.

I descended into the valley, ahead of Brian. He had just abandoned the decision to head further South into Italy and pointed his covered wagon truck direction Poland instead. I know he would pass me sometime. When I saw Brian again I had reached the bottom of the Val di Sol decent and sheltered in yet another tunnel from rain. Today's tunnel served as thoroughfare between two large adjacent towns, a short busy four lane metropolitan tube, devoid of yesterday's tunnel's dark romantic coziness. My body didn't feel as cozy as yesterday either. The flame in the firebox had gone out during the decent. If the uphill doesn't get you, the downhill will. I always worried more about downhills than uphills. I  felt miserably cold, wet, stiff, and not hungry, always a bad sign. This was one of the very few times in my bicycle touring life when I would have accepted a ride, had it been offered. But I knew how it was. I was sure every inch of his truck was decked out with just exactly what he needed at any particular moment. "I know what it's like out there" he cried with feeling from inside his dry truck, sounding like a man who was just divorced. "It's hell out there ! Good luck !". And drove off.

I continued riding. A dark cloud came up the valley towards me, looking as if it originated from an explosion. Lightning and thunder preceded the dark cloud, like the opening of Beethoven's 5th symphony. I sprinted back for cover to the tunnel. I spent the next hour yoyoing back and forth from the tunnel, in the proposed route, then a newly proposed route in the opposite direction, then back to the tunnel. The tunnel offered safety like a womb. I finally reached the decision that I couldn't make a decision anymore.  I spent a couple of hours in the closest promise for warmth, a rather deserted modern shopping centre with frightfully functional architecture. I stood inside near the entrance, moving straight extended arms in vigorous circles, trying to dry out and warm up, light a pilot light in the fire box again. Any rare shopper ignored me courteously and perfectly. A men's clothing store employee adjacent to where I was performing my public athletic exercises for basic well being advised me of a hotel economico just around the corner. I sprinted through the rain shivering. Chiuso (closed) signs were plastered all over it. Ringing various doorbells distributed around the complex in the rain and yelling like a madman yielded no results. Never trust suited men working at men's formal attire stores with bicycle related advice, I thought.

I was riding chiuso circles in the rain, searching for open hotels. I felt left out of the shelter during a bomb attack. I shivered my way from one hotel to the other, about ten, looking open, but all closed. Luckily the first actually open hotel was not deterred by the appearance of a drowned rat dripping mud on their natural light hardwood floor. I hid in my room and carefully fired up the stove to get some warmth into the place and my stomach. I let the walkman lull me to sleep : "When the rain comes they run and hide their heads. Rain, rayayayayne, damnit, yes I do mind !".

So the rain had gotten the better of me, and left the worse. I got back on my bike next morning, only because the hotel room was just as cold as outside, and because I had to get out from under the covers to get some food anyway. While I was on the bike I might as well keep pedaling. I reminded myself that I really enjoyed pedaling. I didn't get very far, about 24 miles, but 2600 feet higher, up Val di Non, direction paso delle pallade.

When it started snowing again I was contouring on empty roads through the small village of Tret. It's the 180 degree turns in fate and fortune that make bicycle tours so memorable. One minute I was shivering without food. The next minute I was received warmly at the warm stove of an idyllic albergo, with most of my clothes hanging over the tiled stove. "Come in, would you like to eat in the bar. You have everything you need, or I can fix something. And if anything is wet you can hang it over the stove".  ("Joa, kommens rein, und essen Sie in der Bar, Ham Sie alles was Sie brauchen ? Un wenn sie was nasses ham dann haengens hier an Ofen." ). Once again I felt like I went straight from a bad place, let's say hell for example, to heaven. As I discovered what dry clothes felt like again, I realized it was getting harder to leave. But who wants to leave ? That settled it. I'm staying. I accepted my caretaker's suggestion to join a birthday dinner for a 93 year old woman that evening, dining on tongue, risotto, wine, and two glasses of milk, for a price of course. Afterwards I went to my room and prepared supper. My appetite was returning. Good sign, I'll be fit to ride again soon.

So how wet was it ? Well, it was so wet  I saw a duck walking next to the road carrying an umbrella. No, seriously. I can hear the voice of the chief investigator in the old Dragnet TV show : "Just the facts, just the facts Ma'am". In the following days, in the closeby Tauern region in Austria, mudslides closed the entire Innsbruck Vienna train line for 5 days. I photographed a train stuck between a downed high voltage line and a mudslide covering the track with several stories of mud. The report of roads closed due to mudslides took several minutes to announce over the radio. A state of emergency was declared, whatever that means. A week later I still couldn't circumbikulate the Bodensee on the bike path, because of extensive flooding caused by the same system. So I felt justified in feeling wet. I've felt wet before with less mayhem around.

The morning after the tongue and risotte extravaganza, I started climbing Passo delle Pallade and experienced the sliverlining after the clouds. Shreds of fog tore off the landscape, revealing village dots scattered across the highlands like distant life filled planets. It resembled navigating through space between nebulae ( I dreamt something like that once). Still, the bike was far from weightless. In the distance, veils lifted from the Stelvio world of vertical ice and snow. I felt a little poorer and a little richer, a good time to just look and feel, stop thinking in words, start thinking in pictures.

Revenge of the Rim

On Passo delle Pallade I crossed a language and cultural border. People on the North side spoke German. Towns clustered around Gothic onion dome churches. Law abiding shoppers abided by restrictive North European shopping hours. Sterile cleanliness ruled the houses, decked out with a colorful symphony of flower boxes in the windows. People slept under heavy featherbeds instead of a sandwich of sheets, blankets, curtains and whatever. Wildly active hands and fingers were no longer essential for verbal communication. Bike paths accompanied by a parade of instructional signs regarding their use jumped into existence. Germanic instructions like "don't touch" (Bitte nicht anfassen) graced certain fruits in grocery stores. At one point a Tyrolean commented to me on the noisy Italians: "They'll think nothing about carrying on a conversation in a large room full of people, from opposite ends of the room ! From now on instructional signs regarding the permitted time periods of loud radios or other noise making implements was clearly posted in hotel rooms. A good night's rest was highly valued, and guaranteed with warranted authority, make no mistake about it !

I crossed from the Trentino part to the Alto Adige part in the state of Trentino-Alto Adige. This intra state crossing is more dramatic than any inter state crossing in Italy, a perception heightened by bicycle travel ( but aren't they all ?). Alto Adige is the Italian designation for South Tyrolia. After a long history of disputes over the region, Austria ceded South Tyrolia to Italy after the first World War, keeping North Tyrolia Austrian. In an effort to italianize the area instantaneously Mussolini called the region Alto Adige, after a river in its upper reaches. To make the culturally Austrian German speaking population a political minority, he combined it with all Italian Trentino, yielding the state of "Trentinio-Alto Adige". You could compare it with a hypothetical state of "Ontario-Quebec" or more appropriately "Ontario-Saint Lawrence". Wouldn't that go over peachy ?

There have been violent incidences here as late as the 80s. The only upediness that this bicycle traveler observed was a rowdy little radio station, Radio Vinschgau, playing Austrian slang rock and roll with right wing lyrics. A woman renting a private room complained that children had to learn Italian in school. Otherwise peace and quiet ruled the mountains and the valleys, and overnight accommodations.

While climbing up the baking form shaped valley from Merano towards Schlanders, I noticed another unholy wobble in the rear wheel. I decided to investigate. Bad news. A bubble in the tube was rearing its ugly little head at the seam with the rim. It looked like a baloon about to explode. The Mavic511 rim was taking revenge.  I had ridden with the cracked rim so long it had weakened the tire. Now the weak spot had worn through, even with the new rim. The feud between the old rim and me continued past the life of the rim. This was feudal, eh I mean futile. A flawlessly turning fully inflated bicycle wheel seemed like such perfection of harmonious beauty, when you don't have one. I put a cardboard boot under the tire, not beautiful or harmonious at all. But after a mile, even that was bubbling out, so that I had to disconnect the brake again.

The time was Friday afternoon. By law stores could still be open a few more hours. Supermarkets still showed signs of life. Most other stores, like bookstores were already locked up tight for a long Holiday weekend. North European countries take their non working time very seriously. Unlike Southern Italy, here at 5:30 on weekdays, or 7:30 on special shopping days, shutters come rattling down as soon as the large hand on the clock points straight down. Payment better be made for whatever the perspective shopper holds in his hot little hands within a minute or so, or he's out of luck.


As I write this, cracks are beginning to show in the unified opposition to engage in capitalistic commerce on the weekend. Curiously enough, it started in East Germany, the part of Germany with no tradition of capitalism. The tradition of labor unions is also absent, the main political opposition to shop till you drop. Spurred on by much higher unemployment than in the west, cities like Leipzig ignored the so-called "blue laws" and opened on Sunday. They did great business, and faced with this popularity, the state did not step to discipline the outlaw workers. Now the great European "blue law" discussion has begun, as they are still attempting to act like one big unified market. We'll see what happens. I got the impression that most people like the restrictive store hours. It forces you to be such a determined consumer. This way consumption fosters discipline. Planning the time of consumption is of essence. I was always puzzled how they have managed to consume themselves into such excess with such a handicap. There, that's the American view.

This "blue law" situation left me in quite blue. I searched out some bike stores, with attached living quarters, hoping I would find somebody connected with the store. Only women left behind from the long weekend answered doorbells. They assured me there was absolutely nothing they could do, and wished me a very very friendly "Auf Wiedersehen", and smiled broadly. The promise of  a bicycle tire lead me to a still open auto saloon, where they were raffling off a bicycle with the purchase of a car. The trail stopped there, at a  person with all the helpfulness of a rusty hood ornament. The trail continued to a friendly shopping lady and a bar, reputedly containing a man who could help. It lead to a Mercedes driver who was going to sell me a tire at his house. I sprinted after the Mercedes, wondering if the cardboard patch could stand up to the sprint. When we reached the Mercedes owner's house, he brought me a tube, not a tire. - One language, still no communication. Still, he was willing to help.

The weekend revelry had begun. I wasn't reveling. Lots of bikes stood around on village streets, looking forlorn and unattended. Surely not all bike owners would value all of these aging tires, as much as I would value a tire right now, any tire. - No, I wasn't going to steel one. I was going to proposition somebody to let me remove their used tire, for a price of course. I picked a suitably neglected looking bike on purpose, thinking that this increased my chances for success, dirt on the bottom bracket, chain nice and gooey. I tracked down the bike's owner inside a supermarket. He was a friendly big guy giving directions to store clerks. Apparently, not only did he own the bike. He owned the supermarket too. Actually, this likable guy in a fashionable crewcut didn't own the bike. His wife did. Aha, even better ! I saw my chances for success increase. What would you agree to first, selling your own rear tire or your spouse's rear tire ? I'm making certain assumptions about the spouse and the spouse's bike of course, which may not be true in all situations. - Success !!!  As he was closing up shop, he agreed to let me remove the old tire from his wife's bike.

I made myself at home, sitting cross-legged in the parking lot with the necessary implements of tire repair at the ready : tire irons and the all powerful adjustable wrench. Then, in the heat of repair, I managed to destroy my tube, and then the Schraeder end of the pump as I was mounting the tire.  "Iiiirghh, Failure, Incompetence, Embarrassing, Left Thumb City !!!". Taping the end of the pump back on with duct tape didn't work. So duct tape does have certain limits. I sat between rain puddles and vegetable refuse piles in a corner, facing destroyed bike parts and two bike carcasses, feeling like Charlie Brown loosing his marbles. Finally I mounted the wife's tube on my bike too. It had a Presta valve, and I could pump it with the still functional Presta end of my pump. As far as I could tell, I had a barely functional vehicle again, and a pile of destroyed parts.

After the dirty deed was done, I looked for the supermarket owner, in the pensione where he was having a drink. I paid him 50000L, so he could have his wife's bike fixed before she ever noticed it. I found out, he once had a motorcycle accident in Greece. He said he wanted to repay the good that other people had done for him. About my bike parts breaking in domino fashion, he commented  "but this is what you want, you want the adventure". - Right, the adventures of Laurel without Hardy. - How to change a tire with ten left thumbs, and break every other conceivable part in the process. We turned out not to have that much in common. He hated computers, and he hated America. I was a computer programmer from America. "That is one sick culture" he said.

Europeans often think that things happen first in America. They do, the internet, amusement parks,  post office murders, school shootings, block buster movies. They seem to think that America exports these things, rather than that they import them. Many Northern Europeans think America a dangerous place, pointing to the images the US exports through popular film, which encourage visions of shoot-outs on every street corner, like gas stations and fast food. But it takes two to tango, and two to trade. Just because the film is shown in the theater, doesn't mean you have to shell out the bucks for it. Movie going is a voluntary experience. "The commercial or movie made me do it" is not a commonly accepted valid defense.  We need more commercials informing people about the brainwashing power of movies, and commercials for that matter !

However, in spite of all these differences, my origin and my background as a computer programmer, the motorcycling supermarket entrepreneur saw it fit to postpone his anxiously awaited weekend and help a stranded bicycle bum. That's remarkable, and I was filled with deep gratitude". He supplied me with tire and tube when I was in dire need. "And now you will still receive from me a bottle of organic apple juice" he said in a curious sentence construction that emphasized the "organic" and the high quality of the juice. ( "Und jetzt erhalten Sie noch eine Flasche organischen Apfelsaft von mir" ). No two ways about it, I owed a good deed, not to mention a bottle of organic apple juice to somebody who hated America and the internet. I had a chance to start repayment a week later. A motorcyclist had tipped his bike over and I helped him get it upright and back on the road. I didn't get a chance to quiz him about his opinions on the internet and post office murders.


The last two episodes made the next couple of days more precious. A bit of peril and bad luck gave me the determination to enjoy the next pleasant situation as ruthlessly as possible. I owed the ability to enjoy the next several days of sunshine to the valiant Supermarketeer. All the big name legendary passes were closed because of snow or mudslides, Stelvio, Timmelsjoch, Umbrail, Leonardo. Next to the expressway crossing over Brennerpass only one logical route existed, over Reschenpass to the point where Italy, Austria and Switzerland meet.

Bikers thought it was a bike path. Hikers thought it was a hiking path. Drivers thought it was a very narrow road with lots of turns and no room, something to go very slowly on. It was the bike route up the Atsch valley and  Reschenpass. Passing through villages as picturesque as they are hard to pronounce ( say Schlanders, Schluderns and Glurns three times fast without swallowing your tounge ), this path at times threads itself along a thousand feet above the main road. When it gets to a town like Glurns, a forest of terse little signs resembling the icons on a windows screen,  navigated me through town. I got lost a dozen times anyway. When I had not seen a tiny green bike with a white arrow after two turns, I knew I was on my own. This is one route that it really pays to stay on. It's my favorite bikepath-like route through mountains. The Ortler group, one of the lower but most rugged Austrian mountain groups, showed itself off in pure white across the valley.

I say "bikepath-like" because there are some cars on the route. It fronts many farms that can only be reached with this path, therefor the cars. They were rare and slow. But you had to be very careful not to let speed get the better of you around the blind turns. Bikes didn't own the road. A group of three hikers, walking next to one another thought they owned the road . I scared them as I passed without the customary bell ringing. "Well don't you have a bell ? You scared me like a sau"  said a woman with glasses ("Sie erschrecken einen ja saumaessig"). The dialect was such heavy Austrian, that I had to wait for clarification into Frankfurt German before I could respond. "Well, yes I do, but even without one, I never scared anybody as much as you". - "Well, you do possess a certain scariness" ("Sie sind auch eine schreckenshafte Person") they laughed. They were obviously in "Pfingst" Holiday spirit, drunk from the sunshine, high on the blueness in the air. After a few comment filled minutes about legs, holidays, roads and bicycle bells, I tore myself away, and continued through a rare stretch of mature forest. I didn't want the day to end. So I continued on till sunset to the top of Reschenpass, and stayed in the last Italian village, Reschen, though culturally I had been in Austria for a week already.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Cyclepass.com - Distribution for personal use permitted.
Distribution for other uses with written permission.


Puglia April/27-May/2, 99 309 miles
Abruzzo May/3-May/5 164
Umbria May6-May/8 164
Tuscany May/9-May/14 340
Emilia Romagna, 
Trentino-Alto Adige (the Alps)
May/14-May/23 516


Copyright (C) by Cyclepass.com 2003-2015