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 me.
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 other.
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 cream.
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 too!
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 behaviour.
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 excellent.
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 hours.
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 everyone else.
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 warm clothes.
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 feeling.
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. So cute!
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 pension.
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 confined space.
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 one truck.
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 rolling scrubland.
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 tonight.
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 chat.
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 Nelson.
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 club.
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 north.
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 course!
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 left.
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 correct.
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 here.
You can contact me here.