Living in Italy from March to June 2006
Living in Italy from March to June 2006
I am feeling a mixture of excitement at the thought of
starting my new life as a student in Italy and sadness on leaving the warmth of
the Finet's and all their friends.
The train is well over an hour late due to "probleme
technique electric" or something like that. I'm going to miss my connection in
Milan but there are trains every hour and an Italian fellow passenger tells me
that the trains are always late in Italy so perhaps it will still be there for
The landscape hasn't changed much since Chambery.
Mountains, rocks, leafless trees and shuttered solid two story houses built for
the cold. We have just emerged from the Frejus tunnel into Italy. Peugeots and
Renaults have given way to Fiats and the sun has come out but otherwise it looks
much like Savoie. I have been chatting to a French woman who was born in Italy
but lives in France, a Moroccan student who is studying Economics in Aix-en-
Provence, an Italian electronics engineer returning from a conference in
Grenoble and an American who has lived most of his life near Brisbane and been
here on a ski trip. He was wearing a Swandri so at first I thought that he might
have been another kiwi. The Moroccan girl, the Italian engineer and of course
the Aussie all speak English but most of the conversation is in French -
fortunately slowly for me and the Italian.
We have now lost enough altitude so that for the first
time in weeks I'm not looking at snow. It feels warmer already. Just this last
week I started to notice buds bursting on trees and shrubs but the weather has
been far from spring-like. It has snowed almost every day and our first two days
in the Jura were more about winning the battle to stay warm and dry rather than
enjoying the skiing and the scenery. To balance that the stops in the refuges
for hot wine were even more welcome than usual.
I had planned to be riding my bike from Zurich to Modena
today but the forecast was for snow on many of the roads I would be using in
Switzerland so I decided to stay two extra days in France and take the train.
I'll go for the bike on the first fine weekend.
The extra time in Chambery gave me the chance to go to a
concert organised by our friend Bernard Dingeon. He has been helping a pianist
from Georgia get established by making CD's and organising concerts for her.
This time she performed with three young musicians one of whom was
extraordinarily good. Watch out for Fanny Favier. She is a pretty blonde 19 year
old with the poise and confidence of a musician twice her age. She played
difficult pieces flawlessly and managed to convey all the emotion of the music.
I also got time to go with Brigitte to Aix-les-Bain on one
of her guiding trips. The whole Savoie area is full of history and beautiful old
fortresses and chateaus. Aix-les-Bain was occupied by the Romans on account of
it's hot springs and remnants of Roman buildings still survive but it wasn't
until Victorian times (la Belle Epoch to the French) that it was developed as a
spa town curing everything from gout to asthma in hot water and mud. The rich
and famous from all over Europe and America came here to relax in hot pools and
gamble at the ornate casino. Queen Victoria came three times and was carried
about in a sedan chair by four men. There are photos on the wall of the current
spa building now owned by the government - treatments here are eligible for
health subsidies. The clientele has changed a little but the town hasn't. The
old grand hotels still survive and many have been restored. Most were built in
the early 1800's in ornate almost baroque style and also in the style of
Haussmann Paris with steep grey roofs inset with decorated small round windows.
Another group of buildings was built at the height of the fashion for Art
Nouveau. I much prefer the latter. The Astoria Hotel has been lovingly restored
and is complete with Art Nouveau furniture and fittings. It wasn't even very
expensive to stay there perhaps because it is the off season. Old people are
everywhere. The streets are full of hairdressers and chocolate shops. Brigitte
told me that in another town where rich women go to lose weight the town is full
of shops selling sticky cakes.
The train has just arrived in Turin. It's much warmer and
the sky is blue and I'm wondering if I shouldn't have risked the bike but as in
NZ the weather can be completely different from one side of the alps to the
I miss my Milan connection by over an hour but in 40
minutes there is another. I'm unsure what the guard will say about my 'ticketless'
email booking which is now for the wrong train but with the help of the other
passenger in my compartment who speaks good English, we explain all to the guard
and he types my code into his handheld computer and it produces a ticket. Quite
advanced for Italy! Even the technology-loving French still insist on tickets.
Daniela (the other passenger) seems keen to use her
English and we start a long conversation which passes the time very quickly. She
is in the middle of a recital of all Berlusconi's crimes on his way from the
edge of bankruptcy prior presidency to being Italy's richest man today when the
train slows to stop at a station. I ask "Is this Reggio Emilia?" and she says
"Yes. Modena is next". The train pulls out and she realises with horror that it
was in fact Modena. She is far more upset than I am. I ring my new landlady for
the second time to say that I'm going to be late and ask Daniela to explain what
happened since it's a bit beyond my Italian to explain it clearly. I suppose I
want Adele to know that it wasn't my fault.
Eventually I get to Modena about 3 hours late and well
after dark. This apartment is one of 60 built around a small park. It's warm and
comfortable and I have a large room of my own looking out over a sports ground.
Adele is about 65 and retired after 37 years cycling daily to work in the same
shop selling porcelain and china. She loves opera but unfortunately not cooking!
My board is a comfortable bed and typical Italian breakfast of cake, tasteless
packaged white bread, coffee and jam. I am going to have to cook for myself I
think. I don't mind. She seems cheerful and we manage to understand each other
most of the time. I start at the language school on Monday.
I had my breakfast of peach juice, a jug of hot milk,
another of black coffee, two dry slices of toasted white bread for which there
were motel-type jams, and a sweet brioche with peach jam inside. I don't like
sweet stuff much so I think I might buy some muesli and yogurt. I don't think
that she will mind. The coffee was good though!
The day looked OK for a walking tour of the city but the
wind proved biting. Groups of cyclists - mostly older - all dressed in club
colours were converging nearby for some sort of race. I had a look but they were
all just standing around in a tent drinking coffee so I didn't stay. If they had
known what the weather had in store for them they might have stayed at home.
By the time I found my way into the city centre about half
an hour later - due to stopping to ogle a shop full of newish Ferraris which are
made near here - I was feeling pretty cold and wishing I had worn my Possum/Wool
jersey under my parka. I stopped to take a photo of the cathedral looking up at
the tower. A man in a trilby hat stopped and looked at the view I had just
photographed, congratulated me, told me it was "bellisimo" and wished me
buongiorno. Nice! I started looking for the school and found a huge market. The
sign said antique fair every 4th Saturday and Sunday but it was really mostly
cheap clothing and household stuff. I bought a nice pure merino light pullover
and put it on straight away. That helped but I was still cold so found a thick
second hand jersey that sort of fitted for 1 euro and added that. Warm now but
it had started to rain which slowly turned to sleet. Despite the weather the
stalls were really busy. I think that the majority must shop at places like this
as the prices in the smart shops were huge. Shoes for 400 euros!
I found the school after having to ask for directions
twice. It will be easy tomorrow morning. I saw a building that said "Palazzo dei
Musei" so asked if there were museums inside. I spent a happy and warm few hours
looking at some wonderful art in the Estense Gallery and a strange array of
exhibits from Peruvian mummies to early scientific instruments in the Civic
Museum next door. Modena has existed since a few hundred years BC and was
conquered by the Romans in 183BC. It had it's heyday in the 16th century and
most of the art was from that period. From about 1500 to 1530 the style was
almost modern. Surreal to super-realist images of great style. Religious
subjects in the foreground and detailed stylised scenes of life and landscapes
in the background or seen through the windows. So much more appealing to me than
the typically grandiose baroque religious art that followed.
They closed the museum at 1pm so I went looking for a
place to enjoy some pasta or a pizza but the only restaurants open on Sundays
seem to be the sort where the family go out for a smart lunch. There was a
family either side of me in the one I found. The very bald and rather short
owner was doing a great job of entertaining the young kids but stopped short of
getting them too excited. He was dressed in T-shirt and jeans and his daughter
who was helping was also dressed in jeans - mostly threadbare but in carefully
chosen places. Ella would have liked them when she was the same age.
I decided to go for the plats de jour or "piatti del
giorno" since I'm in Italy. It was an asparagus rissotto followed by "Filetto di
cavallo con rugola". I thought soon afterwards "I think that I have just ordered
horse and rocket", and so I had. I remember buying horse meat from the pet shop
for the dog when I was a student in ChCh and thinking that it looked pretty
good. With apologies to Mei and Ella and any other horse lovers or vegetarians
reading this I can confirm that it was delicious - much nicer than beef.
The local red wine turned out to be Lambrusco - light and
sparkling and more for a hot day although I enjoyed it as I watched huge flakes
of snow starting to fall outside. For dessert I chose ice cream with 20 year old
balsamic vinegar since everyone else seemed to be ordering it and it sounded
interesting. Sergio had told me that the balsamic vinegar here was nothing like
what is exported. He's right. This didn't even taste like vinegar - just a rich
smooth flavour that I can't describe but which went very well with the ice
The snow was quite heavy so I decided to walk home. Adele
was having her siesta so I came to my room and turned on the TV. There was a
choice of quiz shows, sports panels, infomercials or lots more quiz shows all
with a studio audience. Why do Italians love quiz shows? I decided to get some
pronunciation practice instead, using the clever "Learn Italian" software that
Ella gave me. Adele knocked to say that she seems to be getting the flu or
something. I hope I don't. She was in bed and explained later that I would have
to go out for a pizza if I wanted to eat tonight.
It had stopped snowing and I could see blue sky but the
wind had risen and it was very cold but I was well wrapped in NZ fibres this
time so felt warm. I couldn't find a pizzaria. I followed a sign that said "oven
open" but found nothing other than a Chinese restaurant that I could eat at. It
felt odd ordering Chinese food with Italian names. Dumplings become ravioli,
rice becomes risotto and noodles become spaghetti. I had a cross between Italian
and Chinese. Pork with bamboo shoots and porcini mushrooms. It was good. Cheap
That was my first day. I think that the weekends could be
a bit boring around here so getting my bike is a priority. An internet
connection would be good too.
I'm sending this from the school next day. The school and
the staff are great! Very friendly and very professional. I really enjoyed my
classes this morning and the time just flew.
I can't believe that a week has passed since I arrived. I
am so pleased that I chose Modena and Romanica (the school). I am enjoying it
all very much! Modena isn't all that beautiful, but it isn't ugly either and it
has a magnificent cathedral and central piazza as well of lots of other
interesting old buildings. I love the easy pace of life here and the
friendliness of the people. Everyone seems to have time to chat - sometimes in
English but mostly in Italian. People are always surprised to learn that I come
from NZ. The lessons have helped me a lot. I feel that I have made huge progress
in a week. My vocabulary has grown and I have learned the correct grammar for
lots of common conversations. Partly I have just remembered what I learned and
forgot, or only partly learned, from my friend Sandro, so perhaps future
progress will be less dramatic. Adele is impressed with my progress and we are
starting to be able to have real conversations.
I went to lunch with Ludvig on Friday. It was his last day
before he returns to Munich. He invited me, Paula - one of the tutors and the
Aussie girl, Laura, who is in his class. Paula chose her favourite Trattoria.
Another family one which is only open weekdays for lunches for working people.
It was the same formula as Trattoria Hermes, which I have adopted for my daily
lunch and entertainment, but a little bigger and the waiter was no substitute
for the large and funny Hermes, but the food was delicious. No menu and no
detailed bill. The waiter tells you what meals have been cooked that day and he
remembers what you had at the end. I asked Paula "He just keeps it all in his
head?" and she made a sign which meant "He'll probably forget a few things but
that's all part of the deal". How can you put an exact value on a good meal
anyway? I enjoyed it because for the first time I was able to have a real
discussion all in Italian - far from fluent but at least I could understand it
all and say what I thought.
It's sunny today although only about 10 degrees. I decided
to go to Bologna but changed my mind when I got to the train station and went to
Reggio Emilia instead. It's the next city in the opposite direction - back
towards Milano. It is a bit smaller than Modena but more attractive to tourists
as the older buildings are all together and easily seen. Being smaller, it's
less industrial too. This area is famous for hams (Parma), Parmiggiano Reggiano
cheese (Reggio Emilia) and balsamic vinegar (Modena) - and of course cars -
Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini. The shops in RE had windows stacked full of
huge hams and cheeses. The cheeses in one of the windows I looked at were all
stamped "Set 03" (September 2003). They are about 60cm in diameter and about
20cm tall. The centre of the city was full of people out for Saturday morning
shopping. Many on old-style bicycles but most on foot. It's flat for miles here
so bikes are the most common form of transport in the cities.
The scenery from the train window is interesting but only
because it is different. In 2 minutes we are out of the city surrounded by miles
and miles of flat horticultural land dotted with farm buildings and the odd
village or factory. No animals so no fences. Some fields are ploughed for spring
but most are still green with the winter cover crop. Everywhere there are small
vineyards. Some all neatly pruned, some being pruned, and others looking
neglected. I'm growing to like the local Lambrusco red wine a lot. It's light
and fizzy and easy to drink (a bit too easy!) but goes so well with the rich
local cooking. Pork is the main meat but there is also veal and beef and I saw a
butchery today that specialised in horse meat. No lamb so far. On the way home I
noticed some artificial ponds around which men sat on folding metal chairs -
fishing, and a grave yard with neat rows of small concrete mausoleums looking
like miniature 1930's bank buildings. In the south they get only their photo and
some plastic flowers on a little 'cubby hole' in wall.
I haven't done any study today. Tomorrow seemed more
sensible for that as everything is closed on Sundays - apart from the library
which I think I will visit. I'm going to be joining a new class on Monday as the
two Finnish women have moved on. Most students only seem to stay a week or two.
Adele tells me that she has another student arriving tomorrow for a week. A
woman from Austria.
At last I have time to write another email. Last night I
was just too tired. Delayed fatigue from the weekend I expect.
I am still enjoying my lessons very much. Many people have
told me that Italian is a difficult language. Now I believe them. It's like
climbing a mountain. It seems easy at first and you think that you can see the
summit but after a few hours you reach what you thought was the summit and see a
series of higher crests and a steeper path. There are just so many things to
learn. Like prepositions. In, at, with, on, of, from etc. The words used in
Italian correspond only very approximately to those used in English so you have
to learn which word to use when and the words all alter depending on number,
gender and the letter that the object starts with. And as usual there are many
of the dreaded irregularities. Still, it makes it challenging and therefore
interesting but my dreams of being able to listen to the radio or watch TV after
a month of lessons are fading. In fact I have enrolled for another 2 months
after I return from Spain. Also there is just so much to do in this area that I
want to stay longer but I will try to join a flat of Italian speakers where I
can also cook if I want to.
I enjoyed my weekend in Zurich. The train trip passed
really quickly. I walked down to the dining car to get a beer and a sandwich but
the bar was full of drinkers so I carried on to the restaurant for a meal. The
place was empty apart from the staff sitting at one of the tables all neatly
laid with wine and linen. As I had missed my usual huge lunch at Trattoria
Hermes I decided to have the daily menu. After 5 minutes I was joined by a
genial Swiss guy returning from a business meeting in Milano. He owns a factory
in Perugia that manufactures specialised kitchenware for sale on the web. The
market is limited to the Alps of Europe as he makes things for cooking local
dishes - like Racqlette - melted cheese eaten with potatoes. The market is so
small and specialised that he is unlikely to get competition from places like
Eastern Europe and Asia. We shared a half bottle of wine but it was so good that
we decided to share another. By this time we had been joined by more Swiss -
railway enthusiasts returning from a day trip to the railway museum in Milano.
By the time we all got to Zurich we were old friends and all on first name
terms. Peter helped me swap trains for the one from Zurich to Baden and rang
ahead to book a hotel for me as I was arriving late. I had no time to buy a
ticket but it was only a 15 minute ride. Unfortunately the guard started in our
carriage so I had to make excuses and buy a ticket from him. He was perfectly
polite and friendly and accepted my euros instead of Swiss francs without
hesitation. Easy. I'm not sure if I had to pay extra or not. Swiss trains are
very good but my friend Harley tells me that they cost each and every tax payer
two or three thousand dollars per year in subsidies. I think I would prefer that
to more cars on the road.
Harley collected me in the morning and took me home to see
the bike I had bought a year earlier. I am delighted with it. I took it out on
trial for the afternoon and travelled almost 100km around the various river
valleys and villages nearby. The Swiss countryside and the old villages are very
pretty - even in Winter. I liked especially the large old two story farm
buildings. Steep roofs and Tudor style woodwork. Lots of farms with animals but
seldom more than a dozen or so sheep or goats or a few cows. No doubt most of
their income must come from government subsidies. There were still small piles
of snow from the big fall two weeks earlier when I had had to postpone my ride.
I had taken all sorts of gear to stay warm with. Heavy longjohns, electric vest,
down jacket, sheepskin mittens, possum wool socks, chemical hand and foot
warmers... but the temperature was almost 20 degrees! My main problem was trying
to fit it all in my tank bag for the ride home to Modena. After a very cautious
start on the 'right' side of the road I slowly got the feel of the bike and
started to enjoy it. It is heavy but comfortable and very capable. Ideal for
long distance travel. I expect to do at least 15000km on it before I send it
back to NZ.
I took Harley and Anne out for dinner at a local
restaurant run by an amazing woman. She is 67 but dresses and acts like a 20
year old. Black stockings, black miniskirt, a top that has holes in it which
reveal the word "SEX", shiny plastic platform soled boots, a colourful silk
scarf and quite a bit of dangly jewellery. Her husband seems to run the kitchen
while she flirts with all the men - young and old. She made a great show of
wrapping up a parcel of Swiss chocolates for me to take home. The meal was large
slabs of beef and pork which we cut into slices and cooked on hot stones. Just
potatoes - no other veges. Northern Europeans eat so much more meat than
vegetables. But we were able to order a very nice fresh 'Lambs lettuce' (Marche
in French) salad. I wonder why we don't grow it in NZ. It's very nice. It looks
a bit like miniature bunches of spinach. Anne is English and met Harley when he
worked there for Univac as a computer engineer in the early 1970's so they talk
a mix of German and English at home. Harley is a very interesting guy who has
done all sorts of things. He had just returned from a week in northern Finland
driving Audi rally cars at a school held on roads carved out of the snow on
frozen lakes. He is currently working on a project developing sealants that will
stick to the new alloys used in engines. Apparently modern engines - especially
racing ones - have very skinny surfaces as a result of weight reduction and the
magnesium alloys used tend to repel liquids. He said that most engine failures
in Formula 1 are due to a breakdown of sealants letting oil out or water in.
They are getting EU funding for research into new materials. It gives him lots
of contact with the leading manufacturers which he enjoys very much.
I left next morning on a wet road but without any rain. As
it was Sunday there were no trucks on the motorways and in fact traffic wasn't a
problem at any stage of the trip. I made my first stop after 160km and checked
the bike over for leaks and oil use. All OK. I softened the front suspension to
allow the forks to absorb the small surface bumps better, filled up and carried
on. The scenery was becoming more alpine. High snowy mountains reflected in
ripple-less lakes. Small launches and many yachts moored beside the old towns on
the flatter bases of the steep slopes. In every village beautiful old church
spires and old stone buildings. But also many factories and industrial buldings
in the countryside - however all very neat and Swiss with none of the ugly
untidiness of England or Italy.
It started to get cold and now there was snow on both
sides of the road. I could see high snowy ridges silhouetted against the blue
sky of Italy ahead. The St Gottard tunnel felt much longer than 15km - perhaps
it was. It was hot and monotonous and I was glad I wasn't feeling sleepy. The
landscape changed as soon as I exited the tunnel. Steeper, drier forested slopes
with intensive gardening and hothouses on the flat land. No animals and only
small home plots of grapes. The Laverda just lopes along without effort and I
note that the oil temperature stays below 60 so I know it is barely trying. I
stop just before the Italian border to refuel and to use up my Swiss francs. The
only restaurant is a Mc Donalds! Oh well... I order grilled chicken and salad
which is actually very nice but far from cheap at 9 euros.
The traffic in Italy is noticeably faster. Lots of other
bikes too. All out enjoying the first warm weather of spring. I find that I have
to travel at 125kph or more to move with the traffic in the slow lane. Mercedes,
Audis and Porches flash past in the fast lane at about 100kph faster. Italian
drivers are enthusiastic and aggressive but very alert and generally very
capable. I don't really like travelling on autostradas much but they do save
time and I manage the 600km in 7 hours including stops. I lost a bit of time
touring the suburbs of Milano trying to find the motorway to Bologna.
I think I'll stop here. I'll just add that I had a nice
day today. I went with my teacher to see her father's collection of old
motorbikes. About 50 motorbikes, bicycles and cyclemotors from about 1911 to the
late 60's. A varied and very interesting collection all layed out in the
sunshine for me to admire. Afterwards a coffee and Bruno's homemade desert wine
- sparkling muscat. He has insisted that I return on Friday after school to
visit the collection of his friend. Great!
While walking back from town this evening I saw an old
Moto Guzzi parked outside a partly open shed. I knocked and started a long
conversation with the owner who had restored it. He has invited me to join a
group of about 20 classic bikes on a tour the weekend of 8th and 9th of April.
We will spend the Saturday night at Bagno di Romagna and I will carry on to
Umbertide to meet up with Anne and Bruce before I go to Spain. Also there was a
note left on my Laverda by a Laverda enthusiast who lives near here. Nigel
predicted that the bike would soon make new friends for me. I hope I have time
for it all! This weekend I am joining Paolo Campanelli whom I met here two years
ago at a classic race meeting near Parma and there is a classic bike show and
swapmeet to see on the way.
I have had a very hectic but most enjoyable weekend.
Mostly bike stuff. I left here yesterday morning to go to a huge motorbike
swapmeet and then a classic race meeting. When I got to the race meeting people
were only just arriving and the racing was actually today. I ended up staying
the night there and have only just got back. So many amazing old bikes and lots
of very friendly old geezers. Nellie’s father Paolo was there with his mates
racing his old Gilera. He was fast too.
I started talking to a guy who showed me his bike
collection (every second Italian male around here seems to have a bike
collection!) and when he discovered that I was from NZ he said that there is an
NZ guy living in the village married to an Italian. A while later the local
grapevine did it's stuff and Karel and his wife Cinzia turned up. Carzeto is
very small. Less than 20 houses so they were amazed that another kiwi had
appeared there. They used to live in NZ and want to do so again but are stuck
here looking after Cinzia's mother. They have been here for 15 years. It was
nice to be able to speak English and get explanations for some Italian
This is my last week before I leave to meet up with Anne
and Bruce and travel on to France and Spain. I have so much to do and it is also
a busy week. I may have to skip some afternoon activities which will be a pity
as this week we visit a balsamic vinegar factory, a parmigiano factory with
attached motorbike museum and the Maserati factory. The activities are always
interesting and the teachers very good at explaining things although the Italian
can be a bit over my head at times. They are pitched at the advanced students -
but I ask questions and eventually get the message.
I am staying in a small gite like the ones we use in the
Jura. It is similar to an NZ backpackers but with a restaurant and bar. It is
only 26 euros for dinner, bed and breakfast. Owned and run by a young couple. As
skiing is over and summer hasn't begun there are few others staying here
although the bar and restaurant are filling up.
It seems ages since I wrote. Not because there hasn't been
much to write about - I have just been too busy or too tired. I left Modena on
the 8th with a group of geriatric motorcyclists like me although most of them
were on bikes about twice the age of mine. We travelled very slowly and avoided
all the busy and faster roads - through green and pleasant farm land with big
old farm houses and outbuildings. I now realise that the green fields covered in
lucern and grass are for the cows. Modena is in the middle of a dairying area
although you never see any cows and there are no fences. The cows live inside
year round and are fed a special diet of cut grasses - required if their milk is
used to make Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese. Besides grass there are apple and pear
orchards, vegetables and grapes - for Lambrusco. All the farmers seem to make
their own wine and their own salamis. The ones I have tasted have been
We stopped for lunch in a fishing town on the Adriatic
just north of Rimini. The houses and canal where the fishing boats were moored
reminded me of the islands of Venice. The street was blocked for cars and tables
were laid with linen and filled with baskets of bread, bottles of wine and the
usual grated parmeggiano, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We ate a four course
fish meal. It took more than two hours while we ate drank and talked as people
came to admire the line-up of old bikes. People of all ages and not always men.
There was another huge meal in the hotel that night which
I certainly didn't need and by the look of the figures of most of my travelling
companions they didn't either. We went by way of San Marino which is a separate
republic within the borders of Italy like San Remo. It was a spectacular
fortified hilltop town but a bit touristy for my taste. I preferred the hills of
the Appenines with their old villages, sheep and empty roads. I managed to
celebrate the eve of my 60th in style and next morning watched them ride off
while I waited to phone the family. Several came and gave me their phone numbers
and invited me to look at their bikes when I get back to Modena. As long as the
subject stayed close to old bikes I managed in Italian OK. Only the genial
Georgio spoke any English and that was a grinning "How are you Beeel?" every few
I set off to meet Anne and Bruce on the old road beside
the motorway. It was deserted since it winds slowly in and out of every gully
and the autostrada nearby runs straight and flat down the valley. Because it
isn't used it isn't maintained either and it was more like a farm track in
places. I could handle that but it felt a bit spooky not seeing any traffic at
all. Like waiting at a deserted train station. You get a gnawing feeling that
there is something not right. But I was enjoying it and feeling that it was a
'different' way to spend my birthday. After an hour or so I came to a village
and the road improved as it led to the on-ramp of the autostrada. I had taken
about 3 hours to cover what would have taken 20 minutes on the autostrada and I
had a lunch date with Anne and Bruce so I gave in and took the easy route like
It was great to spend time with Anne and Bruce and just
relax and be a kiwi for a few days. Mostly I enjoyed being able to cook the
things we bought at the local market. We spent a day visiting Assisi and I set
off early next day for France under a blue sky but after a heavy frost. I was
glad that the cold spell we had before I left Modena had persuaded me to bring
The roads through Haute Provence were wonderful and most
welcome after hours of autostradas along the coast of Italy but I felt that I
should have been sharing them with my friends. It took me 2 days to get to
Vincent Finet's place near Aix en Provence. He and his wife to be Laetitia are
both expert riders - horses not bikes. Vincent impressed me greatly with his
knowledge of horses and his abilities training both horses and riders. He spoke
good English and took time to explain what he and his business partner are doing
with their riding stables. They train and look after about 20 very expensive
dressage horses and train and exercise them daily as well as giving lessons for
high level riders. Each horse has different muscles that need to be developed
and different habits that need to be corrected. Like us, horses can be left or
right footed and at this level it is important to train them to avoid any
preference. Vincent is so professional and so calm and competent. I'm sure that
he will do well. He rode a horse at a school camp when he was about 15 and
decided there and then that he wanted to spend his life working with horses.
Laetitia loves horses and dogs too and has taught her dog to find truffles. They
are a very nice couple and like many young couples they have to work too hard.
But at least they are doing what they love.
I had a long wet and cold ride to Alistair and Mary's
place in the SW of France. I arrived just on dark after travelling for 12 hours.
One hour more than was necessary as I ran out of fuel owing to so many service
stations being closed for Easter and being unable to use the automatic ones
which require a French credit card. I thought I was OK with 18km to go when I
had to switch to reserve but reserve lasted only 6km! A kind old man out walking
his dog offered to drive me to the next town to buy a can of gas but a passing
local bike enthusiast saw the Laverda and drove me to his place where he had a
tin of fuel. I stayed for a chat and a coffee since I could tell that he wanted
to tell me all about the British bikes he has owned. Like the Italians, the
French revere old British bikes.
Mary and Alistair are living in a rented holiday farmhouse
while their cottage is being restored. They made me feel very much at home -
even roast NZ lamb for dinner! The area they live in is so pretty. Rolling hills
and ancient hilltop villages. Prune trees, grapes, wheat and sunflowers. Farms
selling foie gras, dried prunes and wines. Still lots of forests in which deer
and wild pigs live. Increasingly the old farms are being bought and restored by
the English as holiday houses but fortunately they are still well out-numbered
by local farmers and it will be many years before the place loses it's rural
I left there this morning feeling rested and organised
with a clean bike and a bag full of clean washing. It got colder as I rode south
and I had to stop and put the last of my warm clothes on. I could see the cloud
low on the Pyrenees and I was wondering what a cloudy 1750 metres was going to
be like if it was already cold in the sun at only 300. I chose the same pass
that Andy and David and I had crossed 6 years earlier because I wanted to avoid
the traffic and I remembered that we all thought it had been our best ride ever
at the time. It follows an alpine valley with a few small farming come ski
villages and steep forested hills either side of the valley. There are sheep and
cows in fenced paddocks and I see a woman and her daughter crossing the road
with a herd of milking goats each wearing a bell that jingles as they walk.
The road is as good as I remember and I love the elegant
and well-cared for old art deco style power stations on the river. As I climb
the clouds slowly part and the sun comes out revealing snowfields and high
peaks. I pass a few small ski fields and a thermal resort called 'hot waters'
which is a very unimaginative name for a pretty old village. There is little
traffic, Spain is only 12km away and I am congratulating myself on having chosen
this beautiful road when I come to a barrier with a typed notice saying that the
road is closed. No reason given. I ride back down to the last village where I
asked a guy who is mending a roof what is going on. He explains that the road
has been blocked by an avalanche but that perhaps a bike could get through. I
decide that it was worth a try and even if the barrier on the Spanish side is
locked I can always return the way I have come. I ride back to the barrier and
see two women walking towards me on the other side. Since the sign says "No
Pedestrians" I feel that they can't object to me asking them to raise the
barrier while I ride through. But they say that they have walked to the fall and
there is no way I would get through so I have to ride back down again.
I saw this Gite and decided to spend the night here. I'll
have a longer ride tomorrow but I still think I can make it to Valencia by
Thursday night quite easily.
If you are still with me I hope that you all made the best
of the Easter break. I'm loving all of this but I miss my family and friends at
times it will be great to get home too.
The 'busy' pass that I wanted to avoid yesterday turned
out not to be so busy after all. Mostly it followed a long river valley and then
climbed slowly past small farming villages. The top was closed by snow but there
was a long tunnel instead so I crossed into Spain deep under the ground.
Spain was a surprise. It was green! As green as Ireland or
New Zealand in the springtime. The green was miles and miles of wheat and barley
and was relieved only by the brown of newly ploughed fields, the grey and
terracotta of villages or the bright red of poppies growing on the verges.
Soon the land got rougher and the farms smaller. A few
small vineyards appeared and then a huge river flat filled with fruit trees.
They looked like peach trees but could have been almonds. It is so empty
compared to Italy. Few farm houses and few villages. I try to follow smaller
roads along a large river. The roads are mostly very good and seem very empty
compared to the roads around Modena. Soon the road winds up over a series of
hills and sparse forests replace the farms. There are signs warning of deer but
I don't see any although I do glimpse 3 wild piglets trotting across the road.
I stop in Huesca which is the largest town and find the
nearest place to eat. It is a very smart and busy cafe but doesn't offer much in
the way of food so I settle for a coffee and juice and a bread roll filled with
some sort of sausage that they heated. It was very good.
I chose the most scenic roads avoiding the main ones. They
were empty and I really enjoyed my ride. I need to stop to stretch my legs and
rest my bum every 160km or so and was just ready to stop when I saw another
couple on a bike resting beside the road - no doubt doing what I was about to
do. They were Swiss and I expected them to speak English but they spoke only
French. We chatted about our bikes for a while and where we were heading. They
were heading north and told me about some nice roads they had used. They were in
the wrong direction for me but helped me to decide on a road that my map showed
as scenic but very rough. Both were true. Beautiful scrub and tree covered
hills, blue lakes and very old hilltop villages. At first the road was really
good too - brand new - but eventually I got to the old road they were replacing
and it was slow and very rough. I was relieved to find this bigger town as
thunderclouds had gathered and there were big spots of rain starting to fall.
It is so hard not knowing the language. I have forgotten
most of the Spanish I learned when in South America. I will have to study the
phrase book tonight before I go out to find a meal. I'm staying in a hotel but I
saw an interesting guest house down the road that has a traditional restaurant.
I wanted to stay there. There wasn't anyone about when I arrived so I parked the
bike and sat on one of their chairs to wait. Eventually a woman appeared and I
asked if I could stay there - using sign language! I understood her reply 'completa'
- full - so I had to come to this less interesting hotel instead.
I'll be staying with Nigel in Valencia. He is working for
the German Americas Cup team there. I plan to return to France via more of Spain
and Portugal so I'll get another chance to stay in a traditional Spanish
I like Spain already. One thing I notice is that it is
also much cheaper than Italy and France. I am looking forward to trying the food
tonight - if I can stay awake!
I am on my way to Portugal and have stopped for the night
in a small farming village. I like it. It's honest - neither very rich nor very
poor. The farmer's shop next to this Hostal is very like it's equivalent in NZ
only there you would never find a selection of bells for cows, sheep and goats.
I am tempted to buy one as a souvenir.
I have travelled 600km today from Valencia and have only
another 200 to reach Portugal tomorrow. I really enjoyed my long weekend in
Valencia although I didn't see a lot of the city - mostly just the port and the
area Nigel and Jane live in. There are lots of trees and beautiful public
buildings. The original wide river bed which divides the city caused flooding so
they diverted the river and turned the old riverbed into a long park which is
always full of people cycling, walking or just enjoying the playgrounds with
their children. I enjoyed playing with 4 year old Jordy who is a super little
boy. He is really tuned into people and asked me all about my day and what I had
been doing and whether I was lonely travelling by myself.
From the maze of motorways going in I imagined that the
city was bigger but it is in fact only 1 million people - about the same as
Auckland or Brisbane. Spain has a lot more space and the city has wide streets
which make it much bigger. The country towns I stop at have narrow streets and
walled gardens so I assume that the Valencia I saw most of was the new part.
It was interesting to get a close look at the America's
Cup site. Team NZ looked the most impressive and from what I heard are the most
professional and committed team. The German team that Nigel works for is half
full of Kiwis and Ozzies anyway - like many of the other teams. I spent an
afternoon out on the sea watching them practice starting and have short races.
It is pretty exciting seeing 25 tonnes of yacht swish past only a metre away
with the rigging creaking and the crew shouting instructions. Pre-start
accidents are common since they try to out-manouvre each other in a very
It was no accident that I was in Valencia for the Spanish
round of the World Superbikes and I enjoyed two days out at the track with some
kiwi bike enthusiasts. Nigel has to work 7 days a week so he managed to see only
the last race. Ducati 1st and 3rd in both races so a good result as far as I was
concerned. Suzuki won the championship last year so Ducati are looking good to
win it back again.
It was a religious holiday in Valencia this morning so I
left on empty roads enjoying the sunshine and a cool breeze blowing me westward
and turning the huge blades on the wind turbines lining the hilltops just
inland. I retraced my route from 4 days earlier and was surprised to see that
the bursting buds on the vines were now a mass of leaves. The seasons change so
fast here. I turn off the motorway and start to follow a major secondary road
westward. As the land gets flatter wheat and barley begin to replace the grapes.
The pale green of ripening barley makes a nice contrast with the deep brick
colour of the cultivated earth around all the vines. They are knarled old stumps
and the new growth grows directly from these rather than from one or two old
branches as in NZ and France. The red wine is cheap and very good.
I cross a wide plain of very gently rolling hills filled
with grain crops and then enjoy a few hills with more vines, olive groves and
spindly pines near the top. I am surprised at how far apart the villages are. I
stop at a typical restaurant and 'Hostal' in the middle of nowhere. It is
11:30am and the local farmers are there for their morning beer and chat. I am
slowly working out the typical Spanish working man's day. Get up about 8am. Go
to the local bar and drink a small white coffee followed by a brandy or two or
maybe a beer. No food. Work until about 11 and go for a mid morning coffee and
another drink and a bocadillo - a crusty bread roll filled with sausage or other
meat. Work until 2pm and then go home for a big lunch and a siesta until 5pm.
Work until 7pm and then go to a bar for more drinks and tapas. Go home or to a
restaurant to eat an evening meal at about 10pm. Go to bed around midnight. It's
punishing! The streets all seem to be empty until the evenings. I am feeling a
bit hungry as I write this - only half an hour to wait for a meal! It's 9pm.
I know that I am heading for good motorcycling country as
late in the day I passed several groups of touring riders. Three Germans have
stopped here too so I will quiz them about the best route through Portugal. This
valley is full of sheep. Not small flocks with a shepherd and a couple of dogs
as I saw earlier but fenced paddocks and ewes with young lambs. The paddocks are
full of trees and wildflowers and it looks so peaceful and pretty. Behind the
town is a hill with a medieval ruin and olive groves. I can see the mountains of
Portugal in the distance and I'm looking forward to my ride tomorrow.
It was a beautiful morning when I left Hererras des Dunque.
I waited for the shops to open at 9 and bought a spanner from the farming store
to do a small job on the bike and then bought my breakfast of fruit and fresh
wholemeal bread which I ate sitting in the sun in the main square. Every village
in Spain has a town square.
It's a lovely ride on up the valley through small villages
and over a hill past a big irrigation dam through eucalypt forest with red earth
on the roadsides. For a moment I am transported to Australia. Soon I take a
smaller road and the country changes to rolling scrubby hills with cattle
grazing. This time it feels like North Canterbury in NZ but the rows of prickly
pear cactii beside the road tell me that this is Spain. This is wetter country
and the air is full of wheeling storks from Africa. It's full of insects too and
I have to stop often to clean my visor. Storks nest on the taller buildings in
the towns and along one stretch of road there is a nest on every lamppost. I
stop in a small old hilltop town with a lovely square lined with trees full of
oranges. I sit, like the other old men, enjoying a coffee and watching the women
walk past. The men are in the bars.
I cross into Portugal over a low pass through hills craggy
with limestone outcrops. There is little to mark my passage into another country
apart from a queue of cars at a service station just inside the Spanish border.
I get the message and fill up. Portugese petrol is 25 cents per litre dearer.
Soon I am riding through hilly farm country with sheep and cattle. These are not
the expansive farms of Spain but small scale like NZ before they took away farm
subsidies. There is a noticeable difference in the standard of living. The cars
are much older and I see husbands and wives riding on tractors. The houses in
the villages are mostly painted white and are not as ornate or pretty as I had
expected. There's a mix of old an new.
I struggle with navigation. Unlike France and Spain signs
are sporadic and usually only point to the next small village which doesn't show
on my map. I start following a numbered road until it forks but neither fork is
numbered so I have to guess - wrongly as it turned out. My road is good riding
and there's no other traffic. It takes me through forests of pines which smell
wonderful and eventually down into a river valley near a big industrial town
that certainly doesn't smell good at all. I take the first road back into the
hills. The afternoon heat has built up now and I need a break. I see a doorway
beside the road labelled bar. Three old women dressed all in black watch
suspiciously as I clean my visor and then go inside for a cold water and coffee.
I know not a word of Portugese but sign language works. A couple of local men
arrive for coffee and cigarettes and order scotch whisky served in small wine
shaped glasses filled to just past a blue line. I can see them checking me out
but never when I am looking their way. The owner sits and joins them with a
beer. It's a hot day. There's a small store attached to the bar and women come
in to buy bread and groceries. Everything is old and faded and I feel like I am
in South America or Africa not modern Europe.
My road is taking me back to the south - not where I want
to go but it's a pleasant road so I carry on. Soon I can see black thunderclouds
and then lightning and heavy sheets of rain. An afternoon storm in the direction
I should have been heading in. I have removed the waterproof linings from my
jacket and pants so rain would be most unwelcome. It's still sunny and I start
to see mile posts to a town called S. Formosa. The sun goes and the temperature
drops. Only 10km to go and I'm waiting for the first big spots of rain. I wonder
how fast a storm can travel. It's travelling in a straight line whereas I'm
winding my way around the hills. Sapiera Formosa isn't that big and I ride
through it without finding any accommodation. I ride back and make a sleep sign
to a group of young guys sitting outside a bar. One speaks English and directs
me to a restaurant which I had passed just before the town. Apparently they may
have a room. They do! The proprietor learned French at school like me so we
manage a reasonable conversation and I enjoy his homemade red wine and green
olives. All the local olives have a strong peppery taste which I like. The room
smells a bit musty and a bigger light bulb would have made it look less dingy -
but I'd have taken anything by now.
The storm doesn't make it this far and I take a walk
through the village. Everyone has olive trees, grape vines and citrus trees
growing in their gardens. I pick a few oranges from ones that overhang the
street. Noone seems to bother eating them as the ground is covered in fallen
fruit. Small two wheeled tractors of the type you see in China trundle past with
trailers of produce and people. I see a man ploughing his olive grove using a
horse. It's nice to watch. Husbands and wives are hoeing and planting their
small pieces of land. The only major industries seem to be big wine cooperatives
where rows of round concrete tanks are labelled "Vinho Tinto 270,000 l".
I arrange to eat at 8pm after my walk but discover that
Portugal - like Queensland - doesn't believe in daylight saving and I have
another hour to wait. At least the Portugese keep what to us are more like
normal hours. By 8pm the restaurant is full of local families and I'm given the
same plate of olives, house wine and basket of bread to go with my mixed grill
of pork and very good lamb. The bill for my room and meal comes to only 11
euros. The bed is comfortable but after 10 minutes the shower is still cold in
the morning. I brave it and pack up and ride looking for bigger roads as I need
to make progress northwards.
I seem to go from one extreme to another. As I get nearer
the developed coastal strip the roads fill with trucks and cars but at least I'm
heading north at a steady pace. The fog and air pollution in the valleys I cross
stings my nose and smells of sulphur. I think that it is car exhausts rather
than industry. I am forced to ride through the centre of Coimbra which looks
very attractive with ornate old buildings beside a big river. An hour or so
later I find myself alone on a beautiful new four lane motorway. It sweeps
through barren mountainous country over high viaducts and through tunnels. There
are rows of wind turbines on the ridges and distant towns. It's great for
progress but I'm not seeing much of the country and I'm wondering why it's
almost deserted. I find out soon when it comes to a dead end where construction
continues. I decide that it is probably to be a new route into Portugal funded
by EU money.
Eventually I make it here near the northern border and
find the dream ride I have been looking for. A sweeping empty road through
beautiful mixed farm land and old villages. Accommodation is sparse and I want
to stop for the night in Portugal rather than Spain so when I see this large new
"Restaurante Residencial" I stop. It's very smart and new with 8 rooms. Not
expensive either. The "plata del dia" is a mixed grill which is a bit
disappointing as I had been hoping to try some of the famed traditional fish
dishes. Perhaps nearer the coast. Another time.
It's time to pack up and head back into Spain. I'm hoping
to get to Bordeaux to stay with a Ducati enthusiast friend of Nigel's tomorrow
night and I want to ride through the Picos mountains on my way.
I am now back in France. The day before yesterday started
perfectly. The sun was shining and I was riding on the perfect road. It's not
often that I find a road that twists and turns through beautiul scenery and
small hills and valleys that also has a good surface, no traffic and is going
where I want to go. But this one had it all and I was singing as I went. Apart
from a few cars and tractors in a the villages I had to pass only one car and
But then I slowly started to get lost. First I missed the
small road back into Spain and ended up on a motorway but I soon discovered my
mistake and chose another small road north through a village. I find the village
but in the middle the road goes 3 ways. One is marked back to the motorway, the
next has nothing and the last has a sign to the next village. I stop and ask a
man the way by pointing to where I want to go on my map. I learned years ago
that peasant farmers are not accustomed to maps. They have little need of them.
I should have remembered that lesson as he sent me off in the wrong direction. I
was reminded of India where I learned that "you go straight road" actually meant
"I have no idea but I don't want to seem stupid by not knowing". However the
road was new, scenic and empty so I was seduced into following it through
It came to an abrupt end at the next village after about
10km. The road ahead was single lane and very rough from many repairs. I was
tempted to return but feeling adventurous and with a full tank and the day ahead
of me I decided to carry on. If the road has needed so many repairs then it must
have been used a lot which means that it must lead somewhere!
It leads through similar country and eventually to a T
junction where the road is still rough but now 2 lanes. I am miles from
civilisation but the scenery is lovely. I take the north fork which takes me up
over a large hill covered in purple heather and huge limestone outcrops. I can
see for miles. Snow covered mountains and tree-covered hills in all directions
but no sign of any settlement. I enjoy the feeling of being alone in a beautiful
place and stop to take some photos. I follow the road down the other side of the
hill and through some pine forests until after about 15km I come to a road
junction and decide to stay on my 2 lane road rather than take the single lane
offered. In another 4km I come to a small village. It's very rustic. No modern
painted houses here. Everything is stone and very old - including the
inhabitants. Old women in black and toothless old men sit on seats in front of
some of the houses watching the traffic which on a busy day can't be more than
four or five tractors. Cats and dogs lie all over the road and barely move when
I arrive. The houses are small and two-storied - some with barns underneath and
I can see an old man with a cow through an open door. There's a stream with a
ford running through the village and a tree pink with blossom with an old church
behind so I stop to take a photo. I'm happy to be providing something for the
locals to look at. It must be pretty boring normally.
I cross the ford and follow the road through the village
but find that it turns into a grassy farm track so have to return. I ride past
my audience again and can almost hear them saying "I knew the silly gringo was
lost!". I go back to the junction and take the other road which soon leads to
another village and another fork in the road. I say the name repeatedly of a
place I want to head for on my map, hoping that I am close enough with my
pronunciation. Eventually a woman who is merely old rather than ancient points
toward the road with a sign. I follow the signs to another village and more
choices. This time the village is deserted apart from a large dog who seems most
upset to see me and follows me barking while I turn round to try another road.
After two more attempts I find a road that runs north through a forest. When it
turns to dirt I am really starting to wonder if I'll have to go all the way back
to my first mistake. Who would choose to travel from country to country on roads
like these without a detailed map? Only an idiot! I resolve to stay on highways
the rest of the day - if I ever find one.
The seal starts again and eventually I come to a larger
village which actually has a road out the other side and in only 5 more km I am
onto a main road. It has taken me 3 hours to cover about 30km in a direct line
on the map. I buy a meal in the next town and then take to the nearest motorway.
I need to make up for lost time. The motorway isn't busy and is probably the
best way of crossing what turns out to be a huge plain full of wheat fields. I
see many walkers on a track beside the highway and realise that I am following
the famous St James pilgrim trail. It is long and boring on a bike so I don't
envy them although later the road and the trail become one and pass through
lovely vineyards and old towns.
It's getting cold and late by the time I arrive at Burgos
some 300km away. The town looks a bit industrial at first but the city centre
has a magnificently ornate gothic cathedral and i decide to look for a hotel.
After cruising round in the rush hour traffic I see a car driving into a hole
labelled "Hotel Parking". I follow and park and lock my bike and carry my
luggage into the stairwell where I find a lift. I take it up o the ground floor
to find reception. But it seems that I am in an apartment building not a hotel.
I go back to the bike and load it up again to find that I can't open the door
without a card. Help! I ride around looking for other ways out and while I am
trying to see if there is a switch somewhere a man with a load of shopping opens
the door from the street. I race back to the bike and just manage to get under
the door before it closes. Cities! Not for me. I see the actual hotel across the
road as I ride out of town.
By the time I have left the city and it's traffic behind I
decide to stop at the next possible resting place since it is now after 8pm and
getting dark. I see this large new hotel with a carpark full of huge trucks.
Always a good sign of good food and reasonable prices.
And so it proved. I had an enjoyable ride through the
Pyrenees and now I am enjoying the hospitality of Mark and his wife Marie-France
in the country east of Bordeaux. I will ride to meet Sal not far from here
I've been in this apartment for a week. It seems only
yesterday that I got back from the weekend in Venice. Being back at school is
tiring! It has taken me all week to recover my feeling for the language and
forget all the French words which kept putting their hands up whenever I was
searching for an Italian word. As well I have been equipping the flat with basic
food and cleaning items and finding and fitting new carburettor parts for the
bike. It all takes lots of time (and apparently energy too as I am ready for bed
by 10pm). I am slowly discovering where to go to find what I want but 'when' is
more of a challenge. The nearest supermarket to the school seems to open at 8:30
and close at 1:30pm and pretty well every other major shop is closed from 12
until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. They open in the evenings until 7 or 8.
The place looks so different after a month away. The trees
and the countryside are all green with new leaves and new crops. The streets are
now full of people in the evenings as are the parks. Modena has lots of parks
and many tree-lined streets so it's attractive and I love to see the families
out picnicking in the parks at the weekends. This apartment is in a large 4
story block that encloses a gated courtyard. It is only a few minutes walk from
the railway station and about 15 from the school or the central city. I can hear
trains but pleasant and distant rather than annoying although I'm sure that the
building moves a little whenever a really big freight train goes by. There are
lots of bars and small shops on the streets nearby. Bars here are more like
small cafes sometimes combined with a restaurant or a small shop. In the
mornings there are always people on their way to work grabbing a coffee and a
croissant or something stronger. In the afternoon older men gather outside to
Towards the city are all the old palaces and gardens which
once belonged to the Duke of Modena but which are now military or government
offices and public parks. The other side across the railway has another shopping
centre. Pleasant enough by day but I went there after 8pm one night and noticed
lots of dodgy looking guys standing on street corners and a van under the
railway bridge selling some sort of drink out of plastic bottles. It seems to be
an immigrant area as only about half the faces are Italian.
I'm loving being able to do my own shopping and cooking
although the latter has been pretty basic as I am still enjoying spring salads
and pasta. I'm well into my balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The vinegar is not a
vintage one but still delicious and nothing like what we get at home. I'm
currently hooked on prosciuto and melon and my favourite salad made with buffalo
mozzarela, fennel and tomatoes. It's so easy when there is so much available
everywhere. The central produce market is mouth-watering. Beautiful displays of
fresh veges and fruit and also small butchers and specialised delicatessens. The
usual selection of cheeses, salamis, sausages, olives and peppers but also lots
of prepared dips and meals. Everyone is friendly and often want to know where I
come from and what I am doing here. It's the same in this apartment block. There
are of course a few sour looking middle-aged men who don't look happy to see me
using their backyard as a workshop but many more stop to introduce themselves.
There's a lovely woman in an apartment overlooking my bike who I would guess is
well into her 70's who always chats to me. Her name is Tina and she has lived
here for 50 years. I am going to ask her if we can get together regularly so
that I can practice my Italian. I think that we will both enjoy it.
There is another vintage bike swapmeet on here so I'm off
to see that. This afternoon the famous Mille Miglia car 'race' passes through
Modena and 300 very exotic (and very expensive) old cars will be in the Piazza
Grande. Tomorrow I'm heading out to a National Park in the Appenines to do some
walking. On Monday I go to Rimini for 5 days of the Moto Giro which is the two
wheeled equivalent of the Mille Miglia.
It's 10pm and I have only just eaten. I must be adjusting
to Italian eating hours. It's been hot today and I have all the windows open to
allow a breeze through the flat which is only now cool enough to feel. It was
around 30 today and very hot in the sun. I have learned to leave all the
shutters closed during the day which seems to keep the place reasonably cool.
I'm not sure I'd like to be here in August when it gets a lot hotter. The heat
here is not pleasant as the whole of the Po river valley is quite humid. Perfect
for Balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano Regiano cheese and for mosquitoes apparently
- but not for me.
I'm sorry that it has been so long since I have written
but I seem to come home from school exhausted. Everyone else seems to have the
same problem - "sono stanco oggi!" - "I'm tired today!". It's the four straight
hours of concentration. Even the afternoon sessions which are usually movies or
visits or lectures all need concentration because they are in Italian.
I'm still enjoying shopping and cooking for myself but I'm
stuck on salads. There are just so many interesting and fresh things to make
salads from that I can't resist making them. They taste good too! I eat a bit of
pasta - usually ricotta and spinach tortelloni but the only meat I'm eating is
prosciuto crudo which is always wonderful with anything and not expensive here.
Similarly the white buffalo mozzarella cheese. Apart from the odd amareto or
gelato I'm eating very healthy food. Oh, and there are delicious fresh cherries
too! The best come from Vignola - a village 25km from here.
I enjoyed my day off today. Last night I was in a bike
shop waiting while they fitted new tyres to my bike and a couple of Laverda
enthusiasts told me about a huge bike show “Asimoto” about 100km away near
Parma. I arranged to meet them this morning and they turned up on an older
Laverda and an MV four like the one I have at home only earlier. I thought
"That's good, they won't want to go too fast on those." Wrong! The MV was
somewhat tuned and they took off at a steady 180kph along the autostrada.
Luckily there wasn't much traffic and I managed to stay with them and stay
relaxed. My bike was built for doing high speeds all day and it was just
cruising on half throttle. (Sal - you had better edit some of this before you
print it for Mum!). The bike event was fantastic. The worlds most exotic and
famous bike from all over Europe were there along with lots of ex-champions
including Agostini who still holds the record at 13 World Championships but is
about to be overtaken by another Italian hero - Valentino Rossi.
I decided to travel home via the hills and had a lovely
ride although it was an extra 100km and several hours. The Italian countryside
is so beautiful! Very hilly with lots of trees and river valleys. The rivers run
on limestone and are clear and greenish blue. The farms are small with mostly
small herds of cows and even a few sheep. By the smells there must be pigs
inside somewhere too. This is the region for Parma ham and pork is very
definitely the most available meat. Most paddocks were full of hay - either big
round bales like those at home or hay drying in the sun. Lots of attractive old
farm houses and hilltop villages with church towers. Always a backdrop of
mountains streaked with the last of the winter snow. Like NZ. In Italy you are
never far from mountains or the sea.
Last week I went on the Motogiro. Back in the 1950s it was
an important race over 1000 miles on public roads for bikes of up to 175cc. It
was banned along with all other road races in 1957 after a Mercedes killed some
spectators in the similar Mille Miglia event for cars. Like the Mille Miglia,
the Motogiro has been revived. There's a class for pre 1958 bikes smaller than
175cc and another for bikes made between 1967 and 1982. These are both called
races but are actually reliability trials but the riders had to ride as fast as
they could to meet the times. The real race was in the tourist class for modern
bikes. I had to join them as mine was 3 years too new to be allowed in the
competition. We travelled in groups of around 20 with a leader and a police
escort ignoring speed limits, stop signs, red lights, no passing lines and
oncoming traffic. Something that came a lot more naturally to the Italians as
they do it all the time! But after a day or two we got used to it and learned to
enjoy it. I'm now quite relaxed in Italian traffic. About half of the entrants
are English and a third Italians. The balance are American, Dutch and German
with a few extras like me. There was another kiwi but he has lived in the UK for
the past 7 years. It's a great event. Superb scenic roads often with little
traffic but also very rough at times. The guys on the small bikes have a really
tough time and it must be very uncomfortable with little suspension to absorb
the bumps and narrow thin little seats to sit on all day. We would see them off
and then race past them to watch them arrive at the next time check. In two or
three villages each day the locals would provide refreshments or lunch -
probably to raise community funds.
Because the event is so demanding it attracts only true
enthusiasts and they were a great group of guys (and a few gals). I hadn't
booked for the final prize-giving but I was persuaded to stay on for it. There
was no shortage of food. The police who had escorted us were all there plus a
large number of their bosses and other dignitaries. We were all amused when a
new police Lamborghini turned up. Only in Italy! In any other country there
would be questions asked in parliament and the minister of police would have to
resign for misuse of public money.
It's good to be back at school and to have a whole month
without distractions to concentrate on learning again. There is a big turnover
of students and Junko, the Japanese girl in my class, and I are the only ones
left of those who were there when I started. There are quite a few Japanese
women (40ish) at the school - all hoping that they can find an Italian husband
and live in Italy. Most seem to manage it too. I had no idea that the Japanese
were so enamoured with Italy although I know that Kyosuke's mother has learned
Italian and loves Italian opera.
It's bedtime. I haven't done my housework yet but it can
wait for morning. Tomorrow afternoon I am going with my Club 2000 mates to a
party given by an 82 year old man. His wife used to invite all his motorcycle
mates around once a year to look at his bike collection and eat gnocci fritti -
Martinelli day. He has decided to keep the tradition going.
I have had a great weekend after feeling a bit homesick
and lonely last week. Yesterday Karel and Cinzia took me on a tour of
interesting places close to where they live. I have mentioned them before. Karel
is a kiwi who has lived away from NZ for most of his adult life. Cinzia is
Italian and they met in London and lived in NZ for a while before returning to
Italy to be near Cinzia's mother in the area where she grew up. I met them when
I visited their village back in March to watch classic motorbike racing. They
have restored a lovely 3 story cottage overlooking old farm houses and green
fields about 30km from Parma. It's full (well 6) of cats and Cinzia also looks
after all the neighborhood strays and wild cats in a barn nearby. She feeds them
contraceptive tablets in their food to keep their numbers down.
I arrived at about 10am and we enjoyed a cup of real Bell
tea from Karel's huge stache of NZ tea bags and some wonderfully unhealthy but
delicious Italian pastries. A second breakfast for all of us I think. Karel had
planned a day out visiting places of interest that they had discovered in their
area over 15 years of living in Carzeto. Any one of them would have attracted
queues of tour buses in a country outside of Europe but here they are just part
of daily life and few people know about them. The first was an old Cistercian
monastery. It once housed hundreds of monks but now only 3. It dates from the
13th century when Cistercian monasteries covered all of Europe, Scandinavia and
the British isles. The church was beautiful. Elegant and simple in the style of
early gothic cathedrals despite the inevitable later baroque decoration. It has
been restored and is still used regularly. The air was full of the scent of pine
and an old woman sat making small piles of pine twigs to be used in a huge
flower design that had been sketched in chalk on the floor. It's a tradition
there. Outside there was a man raking the paths in a perfectly maintained
cloistered quadrangle built from marble around an immaculate garden. A man in
black and white robes who looked African was talking to him. One of the three
residents I expect. What a wonderful place to live in!
After that we drove for about half an hour past Parmigiano
factories, hay paddocks, vineyards, factories, old farmhouses and small villages
to a huge Roman ruin in the hills. It was noticeably cooler and we thought that
perhaps the Romans built a town there to escape the summer heat but a browse
around the museum told us that it was built in the last hundred years or so of
Roman rule to keep control of an uprising of the locals on Rome's very doorstep.
Many columns had survived 1900 years and were still standing.
The forum was full of engraved plinths but the statues
were long gone. Probably all in the Britsh Museum! Apart from the woman who
looked after the museum and the friend she was chatting to and a few cats we had
the place to ourselves. It was so peaceful. There's just so much of this sort of
thing in Italy that only the well known ones attract many visitors. This one saw
mainly local school children.
Next we walked around a fortified medieval village which
looked more French than Italian to me. Too neat and tidy! There was a wedding
and a decorated old white Jaguar car. Italians love old English machinery - well
any machinery - and they love weddings which seem to go on for most of the day.
Our last visit was the best of all. It was an incredible old bath house built by
the public health service for 'taking the waters' and still in use. I have never
seen a building that was quite so ornate without being overdone. It looked like
a palace and was a strange mix of art nouveau and late baroque. Covered in
matching marble slabs and decorated with ceramic designs. Inside there were huge
stairways, elaborate brass door handles, the biggest mirrors I have ever seen,
stained glass ceilings and even more elaborate tile work. It was built during
the reign of Mussolini in 1933. Excessive but wonderful!
After a drink and a gelato we drove home and relaxed for a
while over another cup of Bell tea before I rode back here to be ready for the
motorbike giro in the morning. Cinzia and Karel take it in turns to visit his
family in NZ. They want to move back there one day. I hope they can visit us in
There were already quite a few bikes at the clubrooms when
I arrived at 7:30am and people were standing around eating the usual awful
Italian breakfast of cakes and the chemical concoctions they call fruit juice.
The coffee was good and I'd eaten anyway. I counted 40 bikes just before we left
although bikes seemed to come and go all day. They ranged from old Vespa and
Lambretta scooters to a few modern BMWs but most were lovely old Moto Guzzi
singles with their horizontal cylinders and red and chrome external flywheels.
We rode off in a huge long line towards the hills to the south. Because I don't
know the roads I have to use the main ones to find my way but they knew all the
nice empty roads and we had almost no traffic all day. Everything was so
organised but still relaxed and low-key. Riders making sure that no-one got lost
and shepherding us all through intersections. People stood and waved at the
roadsides - usually with huge smiles as they looked at all the old bikes. No-one
seemed to mind waiting while 40 or more bikes passed. The tour was over 250km
but since we traveled so slowly - only 50kph - it took all day and we didn't get
back until 12 hours later. I was so pleased that I had finally managed to solve
the slow running problem on my bike. I fitted idling jets two sizes smaller
after a suggestion from my friend John in Sweden. It worked and the bike now
runs as well slowly as it always has fast. It's a great bike!
Lunch was at a huge restaurant high in the hills in a
village no bigger than about 10 houses. We sat at two very long tables and I
counted 150 people. Many must have come in cars as this was a memorial run for a
club member who had died the year before. His two sons were there and they
received speeches and a framed letter written by their father to their mother
back in 1947. I have absolutely no idea how the bike club came to have it! I
must have made some progress as I could understand all the speeches. There was
also a gift of a plaque by the restaurant owner and another in return from the
Everything was done with great warmth and style - and
humour. They are such a nice bunch of guys and I hope to be able to keep in
touch with them. I always felt like one of them and I was a bit sad to have to
say goodbye to them all as in a week I'll be sending my bike home from Milano.
As usual eating was the most important part of the day. Lunch took 3 hours. 4
primi piatti -3 pastas and a risotto- two secondo piatti -rabbit and pork- and a
simple lettuce and tomato salad and deep fried chips and sliced zucchini. Plus
of course desert and coffee. As usual there was far too much food and many of
the various wines hadn't been touched. These events feel so warm and generous.
Typical of Modena and perhaps most of Italy I feel.
I left Modena a couple of hours ago and have another hour
to go until I reach Rome. It's a beautiful day to be swishing along through the
lovely Toscana countryside - as long as you don't think about the 35 degree
temperature outside. But here in this nice air-conditioned carriage I can ignore
that and also, for the time being, that I will have to hump my two packs to the
hotel in the midday sun. My motorbike gear takes up so much space. I don't know
how David will be managing with his tent and sleeping bag as well. I'm going to
have to wear my jacket onto the plane to Stockholm on Tuesday despite the
forecast 37 degrees. I'll just hope that everywhere is air conditioned although
with Ryanair it's quite possibly an old hanger or something.
I left the school a week ago and have spent all my time
since at the MV Agusta Rally near Milan and visiting some of the bike
collections I had been invited to see. It's a bit like the art and old churches
- there's almost too much to see. I love finding new and interesting bikes but
the real pleasure is in meeting the guys who have created the collections. They
are always so knowledgeable and so happy that I am interested. Some have made a
lot of money and have collections of very rare and expensive bikes but others
have concentrated on finding all the makes that were made in their region. There
were literally thousands of Italian bike manufacturers in the old days - mostly
in the towns of the Po valley from Torino down to the coast. All with different
ideas on how to build a motor and a motorcycle. Some were very clever and
advanced. All were passionate mechanics or engineers. It's the same today. There
are still new manufacturers building their dream bikes. Becoming a motorbike
manufacturer in Italy seems to be a popular way of turning a large fortune into
a small one. Almost no-one ever makes any money for long and most lurch from one
financial crisis to another. Like Moto Guzzi which had just been rescued when I
visited them 33 years ago with Cornish on our overland trip (on a Guzzi). They
have just been rescued again - this time by Piaggio who build Vespas. Still it
was good to see the smart museum with a lot of the interesting bikes they made
between the 1920's and 80's. Last time I was there these treasures were stacked
together in a dusty room of the factory. The town - Mandello del Lario is on the
shores of Lake Como and, like most of the towns on the Italian Lakes, very
relaxed and beautiful. The combination of blue lake, green hills gardens, trees,
and grand old villas against a dramatic backdrop of huge limestone mountains is
gorgeous. People mess about in small yachts and boats or simply laze on the
small beaches. Everywhere there is shade and flowers and water - and people
enjoying it. I ask directions from a man in the street. We begin chatting and he
asks me to share a meal with him and his son. We talked until quite late mostly
about Italian history and politics. I was interested to learn that Moussolini
had been captured and killed nearby while trying to escape in disguise with his
girlfriend to Austria. He was recognised - it was hard not to as he had made
sure that his portrait was hung everywhere. My host's father had been imprisoned
in Poland after being overheard in a bar saying "they should remove the portrait
of that fathead". By coincidence, yesterday while visiting my friend Roberto in
Padova who's family restore old cars, I saw the Alfa Romeo that Il Duce had
given his girlfriend and which was driven into the lake soon after he was
captured. History is everywhere here!
Last night I called one of my Club 2000 (old bike club)
friends to give him all the stuff that wasn't worth posting home. I ended up
going to their monthly meeting which didn't end until almost midnight. They
insisted on giving me a warm windproof jacket with the club crest on it.
Something I will wear with pride and happy memories although perhaps not until
we get up to Nord Kapp. I have been travelling by train since I left my bike to
be shipped home from Milan. It's very relaxing and even first class is cheaper
than fuel for the bike. Great while I'm in cities but I'm looking forward to our
tour of Scandinavia on one of John's bikes.
We had a long day on the bikes today - about 11 hours -
but it was all pleasure. This western part of Norway is everything we had hoped
for. Good roads, little traffic and endless interesting and beautiful scenery.
We are even managing to eat cheaply and well (out of supermarkets) although
espresso coffee is proving impossible to find.
Our first day was through rolling farming country with
wheat fields, lots of trees and small villages. It is very like Sweden with big
red barns although, while the houses in Sweden are painted to match the barns,
here they are usually white. John tells me that having to use barn paint on your
house is a sign of poverty in Norway. In the areas that are not farmed there are
big rocky hills, pine and birch forests and lots and lots of rivers and lakes.
It's very like northern British Colombia in Canada. I keep hoping to see a moose
as there are warning signs every so often but no luck yet. Perhaps further
Yesterday was more of the same but slowly the farmed areas
became less and the towns became smaller and the hills turned into mountains. I
was very cold in my little $20 tent last night even inside my two cheap sleeping
bags. We were camped beside a lake in a small farming village. A few old
fishermen were staying in the cabins and would putter about on the lake from
time to time catching small trout if they were lucky. We could hear the gentle
sound of bells as the sheep over the road were grazing. I wished I had bought a
sheep's bell souvenir at the farming shop when I was in Spain. But one advantage
of motorbike travel is that you can’t collect much baggage.
Not long after we set off we climbed a small pass into a
basin full of lakes and big patches of snow. No wonder the night had been so
cold. Tonight we are camped close to sea level so it should be warmer. Sea and
snow are never far apart here. The roads follow the sides of the fjords and now
and then climbs up a river valley and over a pass down to the next fjord. Where
the road needs to cross a fjord there are vehicle ferries. On our last crossing
of a pass between fjords we followed a river valley until it ended at a huge
wall of rock up which the road zig-zagged in a series of hairpin bends until it
reached an alpine plateau. We stopped to take photos of the lakes and the snow
and were soon surrounded by a flock of milking goats who seemed as pleased to be
watching us as we were to be watching them.
Everywhere there are huge waterfalls. Either single
strands falling hundreds of metres straight down or fingers of raging white
water fanned out across bare slate-grey rock. The fjords are huge although not
as dramatic as Milford Sound. The mountains on either side are neither as steep
nor as high. The biggest difference is that the sides are lined with fruit trees
to take advantage of the milder climate near the sea. We have seen a few people
swimming but from the time it takes them to get in it must still be very cold.
We stopped at a cafe halfway down a swooping road that fell in a series of
hairpin bends and long traverses from high mountains to fjord in only about
10km. The cafe was built a few years ago by a retired sheep farmer and his wife
to take advantage of the view of the fjords below and Europe's biggest glacier
beyond. He gave me the address of his webcam www.vikjavev.no if you want to
look. Their season is a mere two months. Like all the plants and animals here
everything happens in a few short months intensified by long hours of sunlight.
We expect to end up somewhere north of Trondheim tomorrow
and then it's only another day's ride to the Arctic Circle. The weather is
perfect so we are pressing on north to make the best of it.
We are on another ferry. This one will take an hour rather
than the usual 10 or 20 minutes. We have spent more time on ferries or waiting
for them than we have riding but we are very pleased that we took the advice of
the Norwegian motorcyclist we met yesterday. The scenery is gorgeous and
uniquely northern Scandinavian.
All I can see ahead of us are islands. Some distant and
tall with rows of sharp peaks but most are low barren pieces of rock. Many of
the larger ones have farms on them and I can see cattle grazing on a green
grassy paddock in between the rocks. Even with the warmth of the Gulf Stream it
must be too cold to grow anything other than potatoes and grass. One staple food
for the people and one for the animals. The grass is being dried on wooden racks
for winter hay.
In places there are trees - pines and birch - but these
are always stunted by the cold climate. The air is cool but the sun is warm and
I was woken this morning at 6am by it's warmth. It had been up for 4 hours. As
soon as it goes behind a hill or a cloud the temperature plunges. Last night in
my tent I had on all my clothes and the warm lining from my bike gear. David by
contrast had his cozy NZ down bag unzipped to stay cool. He also feels very
superior (despite looking ridiculous!) in his 'Bug Suit' - a net that goes over
his head and keeps away the local wildlife which is numerous and too friendly.
So far only clouds of midges but we expect mosquitoes as well further north.
The ferry is going between two islands. One dun coloured
and bare and the other covered in low trees with several small holiday cabins.
One house, like many others here, is flying a long triangular Norwegian flag.
The ferry is stopping to let some people off. There are about 20 vehicles on
board. A mix of Norwegian holidaymakers and German tourists in Camper vans. This
represents 2 hours of traffic so the roads are mostly deserted. The scenery and
the empty roads following the seashore make for great riding.
We hope to make it north of the Arctic Circle -a goal for
both of us - tonight. Much will depend on how long we have to wait for the
ferries. The last wait was almost 2 hours.
I can see a hillside that faces north now and the patches
of winter snow extend almost to sea level. The low sun, barren islands and
sparse trees give a very Arctic feeling despite the relatively warm day. From
the weather forecasts I have been studying every 1000km north seems to bring an
average temperature drop of about 10 degrees. We have another 1000 to go. Those
are the maximum temperatures but because there is no night further north the
temperature doesn't fall as much. At Nord Kapp we can expect a high of about 8
and a low of 5. Survivable.
The ferry has arrived!
Well, we made it. 70 degrees North. Not actually all the
way to Nord Kapp but close enough. Everyone who had been there had told us that
the actual cape was just a disappointing and expensive tourist trap. We didn't
want to spoil our memories of the wonderful ride up so we didn't ride the final
stretch out to the coast. The ride was what was important to us and it didn't
disappoint for a moment. Heavy rain and cold weather didn’t encourage us either.
There was nothing heroic about getting there - it's a good 2 lane highway all
the way. It's just a long way! Only the bumps caused by the frost and the long
chilly tunnels are different from any NZ highway. The scenery was always lovely,
whether we were following the shores of the fjords with their neat red boat
houses and small fishing boats at anchor, or climbing mountain passes with
patches of snow on either side of the road and water falls all around us.
This part of the arctic was a real surprise to me. Where
we crossed the Circle on the coast road ferry it was barren and everything I had
expected the Arctic to look like but the further north we rode the more mellow
it became until we were riding through landscapes that could have been in rural
NZ apart from the big red farmhouses. The same rows of round hay bales wrapped
in white plastic in green fields. Lazy rivers and stands of silver birch. The
Arctic here feels lived-in not wild as in Alaska.
We stopped to photograph a small classic sailing boat
anchored near the road and reflected perfectly in the sea as were the mountains
behind it. The owners were just walking past after a swim and stopped to talk to
us and then invite us for coffee. Liv is a very smiley and friendly 60 year old
and her husband Orven is the headmaster of the local school. He was born and
bred by the fjord here 300km into the Arctic but she fell in love with the place
(and him) while visiting as a 20 year old. In the winter she still skis 10km to
her job as a music teacher. We ate fishcakes made from the fish Orven had caught
the night before and sat on their verandah enjoying the view and the warm
morning - their first since May and the reason for the swim despite the very
cold water. "Too nice a day not to swim". The people here have to be as hardy as
they are friendly. I can't begin to imagine a winter without sun.
Orven told us that moose were plentiful and that Liv often
met them when she skied to work. Sure enough not far up the road we saw one. A
gangly calf that trotted up the road in front of us until we stopped and it ran
off into the trees. Not the huge adult bull I was hoping for but a wild moose
nonetheless. Since then we have seen 4 reindeer - two solitary males and a pair.
All had half-grown antlers in velvet and were moulting.
We saw quite a few Saami camps beside the road selling
souvenirs made from reindeer hide and antlers. The pelt was surprisingly thick
and springy so I bought a piece to replace the thin bit of sheepskin for my
motorbike seat that Andrew gave me years ago in Vancouver. It IS very
comfortable but every time I get off I am covered in long coarse hairs. The
Saami live in modern caravans but also have tents which look exactly like Indian
wig-wams from the wild west. Their cultures and appearance are very close as
they have only been separated since the last ice age.
We saw a little of Finland but both prefer the more
interesting countryside in Sweden so turned around and headed west again. We are
the only guests in a community camp site sleeping in a small wooden cabin that
smells of pine. The Arctic Circle is a few km up the road and my impression is
that this is more of a winter holiday place for snowmobiling, cross country
skiing and sauna. All along the roadside there are wooden stands like those
tennis umpires sit on. These are used in September the hunting season for moose.
The poor old moose doesn't stand a chance.
We are about to eat reindeer sandwiches. I hope that they
are as good as the whale meat stew they served on the ferry - all for science of
We made our way across Swedish Lapland and down the west
of Sweden crossing briefly back into Norway. Sweden is like the Swedes
themselves, gentle, honest and kind. Not only are most Swedish houses painted
the same barn red with white trim and black roofs but inside they have the same
window fittings and door handles. They have a word for it which means "It's
better to be like your neighbour than to appear too successful". There's a
sameness to the summer farms, the small farming villages and the prosperous
looking cities too. It feels reassuring rather than boring. Restful on the eye
too. Everything is calm and clean and orderly. Mostly we ride through forests of
pine and birch and we see a lot more wildlife than we did in Norway including a
herd of reindeer which block the road. We see a moose and her calf too but
decide to visit a moose park to get a close look at a bull moose. The park is an
area of forest fenced off by a tall electric fence and housing 5 wild moose. The
tour isn't for a few hours but we are allowed to walk around the outside and
look in. Luckily we see a family of a calf and it's parents sitting under the
trees not too far inside the fence. We return after walking right around and
find that they have got up and are grazing just inside the fence so we get to
take lots of photos and watch them feed and scratch themselves before they
wander off. Later we see more moose close to where John lives. They are
fascinating because of their ungainly looks and their immense size - about 30cm
taller than the biggest horse. They are dangerous too as they often wander onto
the road and when a car hits them it hits their long thin legs and one ton of
moose body smashes the top off the car.
The highlight of our visit to Sweden was staying with
Lars-Gunnar in the seaside stuga built by his father in 1935. It stands alone on
a rocky knoll surrounded by trees, grass and wild berry bushes. There are modern
houses nearby but this property is now listed as historic and cannot be
demolished. That suits Lars-Gunnar well especially as he no longer has to pay
property tax on it. We spent a relaxing three days swimming in the warm clear
sea, walking on the beach full of bronzed blonde families and walking around the
harbour looking at the fishing boats. We ate fresh fish for almost every meal
which we bought from the fish shop on the wharf. A nice place to relax after so
many days of riding before David left for NZ and I left for Lithuania to meet
Ella and Alenas who are there visiting his family.
I had to fly into Riga in Latvia as there were no direct
flights from Sweden to Vilnius that day. Ella and Alenas and Mantas (A's younger
brother) drove up to meet me. If I had realised that it was a 6 hour drive I
would have waited a day. Riga had a smart new airport and the old part of the
city was beautiful with many ornate old buildings. A great contrast to Sweden
where it is hard to tell a 16th century church from a 20th century one. It was
obviously a tourist town as there were money changers everywhere. We ate a quick
lunch in a traditional eatery which served various types of what they called
dumplings but I would call ravioli. Help yourself and they weigh the plate and
then what you have taken. Very communist. I remember Cornish telling me about
the same sort of place in East Berlin in the 60's. I had cold beetroot soup and
gherkins which, along with pork and potatoes, are typical local food. Only NZ$6
to feed four of us.
E & A wanted to take me to Jurmala, a resort town about
30km west along the coast. It turned out that there was some sort of weekend
festival on and the place was full of people strolling along the pedestrian only
main street looking at shops and each other in the warm evening air. The young
women here dress very smartly in sixties style with high heels, tight skirts and
frilly tops. Lots of accessories. During the day they switch to bikinis and
parade along the beach.
With nowhere to stay in Jurmala we kept driving along the
coast looking for a traditional fishing town with cheap fresh fish and a clean
beach but by 11pm we were willing to take anything and did so. A bunk room in a
disused boxing school. It was a strange place run by a young guy and his wife.
He had been Lithuanian boxing champion under the tutelage of his father who's
dream the place must have been. There were bunk rooms, a gym, indoor pool and a
boxing ring. Ella and Mantas put on headgear and gloves and had a boxing match.
Outside was a huge garden full of vegetables, apple trees and berry bushes. The
big sweet black currants were delicious. Strangest was the biggest brown bear I
have ever seen in a very strong cage. They told Alenas in Russian that he had
been a "Bad Bear" in a circus and was going to be shot. That may have been
kinder than leaving him alone pacing up and down in a cage. He looked lonely and
I wanted to stroke him but his huge teeth and claws put me off.
In contrast to Riga, the countryside in Latvia was
derelict - full of abandoned factories. Few crops and only the occasional cows.
Alenas said that when all the communist farming communes closed the people stole
all the equipment and sold it so that there is now no farming infrastructure
We had a little trouble trying to cross into Lithuania at
the border. Ella and I were summoned to meet the customs chief and told that we
wouldn't be allowed into Lithuania unless I bought travel insurance from them. I
showed him a copy of my on-line receipt stored in my phone and refused to buy
more as resolutely as he refused to accept that an email was a document. Alenas
rescued us and after much talking we were allowed in. Ella had been through the
border without problems before and I think that they saw me as a rich tourist
who would rather hand over a bribe than suffer problems or delays. They were
wrong. I'm going to write about it and Alenas will send it to the newspapers as
there is a real mood to clean up corruption and to welcome tourists.
As soon as we entered Lithuania the roads improved and the
fields were full of wheat. Why they hadn't suffered the same fate as the farms
in Latvia I didn't discover. Most of Lithuania is covered in pine forest with an
undergrowth of shrubs and berry bushes. It is very green and peaceful. Vilnius,
the capital, has many beautiful old churches in various styles. Some catholic,
some protestant and some Russian Orthodox with their onion-shaped towers. The
streets are full of old 4-5 story buildings and well-dressed people - especially
the women. There are cafes, parks and sculptures everywhere and the city feels a
very agreeable place to live in - at least in summer.
Alenas's family live in Druskininkai about an hour and a
half south near the borders of Belarus and Poland. Druskininkai is a spa town
and once hosted the rich and powerful of the old Soviet Union. Like most of the
other inhabitants, his parents live in a two bedroom apartment on the 10th (top)
floor of an apartment block. Everywhere you see parks and forest. There are also
many lakes and a large river - unfortunately polluted by old soviet era
factories in Belarus. The evenings are long and warm and people go to swim in
the lakes and lie in the sun. Irena (A's mother) works as a physiotherapist in a
large modern health spa with a hotel attached. I swam in the thermal pool but
found the Turkish bath and sauna way too hot for comfort. There's a pricelist
offering about 100 different treatments which range from baths in seaweed or
honey to Japanese foot massages to gynaecological examinations and ECG's with a
consultation for a mere 7 euros. Our specialists would charge you more than that
just to say "Come in". I had "Mineralised Water Inhalation", which involved
breathing steam from a bubble machine for 10 minutes, and "Halo Therapy" where I
lay in white cotton booties wrapped in a sheet for 30 mins while another machine
blew in salt-laden air and I listened to relaxing music. Both recommended by
Irena as good treatment for my slight cough. I can't report that they cured me
but I enjoyed it and my coffee and juice in the elegant cafe afterwards.
Like most towns there are more lovely old churches and
nice sculptures. They have collected all the soviet era ones and have erected
them in a park where they are now a tourist attraction. The two supermarkets and
many of the shops are new but the market behind, where old women and teenagers
(on school holidays) sell the raspberries, blueberries and wild cherries they
have picked in the forests and where others sell surplus garden produce and
cheap clothes, feels an age away. Wages are still very low for many but are
increasing rapidly for those with skills. The cost of living is still reasonable
and people are now far better off than under communism. As in Greece and Spain,
I'm sure that membership of the EU will ensure continued growth and prosperity.
It feels so good to be home at last. As much as I enjoyed
everything, almost 6 months was too long to be away from my friends and family.
Phone calls and emails aren't the same as being here.
After two days at home my time away is already starting to
feel like a remembered dream - a very pleasant dream. I know that I will start
to miss shopping for food in the Italian markets, Italian lessons, the language
school and the people there, the streets and piazzas full of old people leaning
on their bicycles and chatting. Real gelato! The network of old motorbike
enthusiasts and all the events. I had a great time.
My Laverda is still stuck in Italy bound up by red tape.
It is registered in the name of my Swiss friend Harley as I was not allowed to
register it in Europe - being a non-resident. The Italian Customs want it
registered in my name before they will release it - which is impossible. We will
find a way. I will never understand why the Latin countries (and America) give
their bureaucrats such power. At least the Italians seem to be able to do
whatever they like by ignoring the rules just as long as the paperwork is
It's still winter here although the garden is full of
daffodils and camellias and other flowers which a non-gardener like me can't
identify. The trees are bare and the air is cool which is a welcome change from
heat and humidity.
I have loaded some more photos
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