Hand built in Italy

I am staying in Sorrento for a few days, a busy tourist town with many hotels and a surprising number of English people. The new port is a constant back and to of excursion boats out to Capri and the Amalfi coast. Just below me however, is the old harbour which remains wonderfully Italian. They had a Festival of the Fish the other night, with food stalls, live music and fireworks. Any excuse for a knees-up it seems.

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One street back from the seafront is a company which still makes boats in a traditional fashion, some entirely of wood and others in glass fibre with beautiful wooden trim. They are a sight to behold. It was like a moth to a flame for me.

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Even if boats hold no interest for you, there is something about the craftsmanship that has a strong attraction. The workmen were totally unconcerned about me wandering around the factory and machinery: a very refreshing attitude.

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Another thing that interested me was the average age of the workforce. Some appeared to be well past retirement, but obviously still enjoyed what they did. Better than working in B&Q.

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In the harbour just around the corner the company’s product stands out from the crowd of massed produced vessels, their sleek lines gracing the blue waters of the Bay of Naples.

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Sorrento has other hidden gems. Just inland, not two hundred metres from the main square is a most unusual sight. A deep valley cut into the soft rock contains the mortal remains of an old mill, long since fallen into disuse. The unique environment of high humidity has created a perfect habitat for lush vegetation, including several ferns, all of which are gradually claiming back man’s endeavours.

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Napoli

I have left my island retreat after three days of rest and relaxation, and the journey began with the climb back up the hill I had descended so rapidly.
Before leaving, I was waved on my way by a kindred spirit. Aaron was holidaying with his family,and although not even two he had a great sense of adventure and was constantly wandering off up the road to explore.
I wish him a wonderful life and many happy travels in the future.

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As the ferry steamed along past Naples towards the dock, I realised just how big a city it is, and why it comes third in importance after Rome and Milan. Having a sea access must also give it an edge over the others. Its reputation for problems is widely known, but in my short stay all I have experienced was a people with a zest for life and a great attitude towards strangers.

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I had already decided to stay in a hostel/ hotel here, but seemingly it’s a very popular place even at this time of year. The town centre was fully booked, so I walked south through the city in a thunder storm which left me soaked as usual. For some reason, when I decide to stay in a room like a normal human being, I’ve either had a puncture and my hands are black, or I’m looking like a drowned rat. Thankfully I never seem to have a problem with these drawbacks. Mount Vesuvius sat brooding to my right as I strolled up another street looking for somewhere to stay. The very helpful receptionist at the hotel directed me to a local pizzeria .Neapolitans lives spill onto the streets; consequently I walked past the establishment twice thinking it was somebody’s kitchen. What a place. Obviously a family business, they had won numerous awards for their skills. Naples is the birthplace of this dish, and the Margherita I ate last night was exceptional.

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A day walking around the city is quite an experience. The locals live life in top gear, and as a visitor you have to adapt quickly to their way of doing things. Towering houses rise up above you, scooters rush past you (even on the pavement ), and animated conversation and business deals are all around you. I have never been anywhere else quite like it.

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I took a tour of the subterranean cisterns carved out of the volcanic rock by the Greeks and Romans. They run for miles under the city with tiny passages linking them. Walking these with nothing but a candle to light the way was a test for a claustrophobic.

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I had a lottery ticket chosen for me by a budgerigar today. It seemed quite happy with its day job, and must surely beat being locked in a cage with a dead cuttlefish for company.

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Ischia

I was riding along the other day, minding my own business, when I passed some road kill. I have seen much on this journey as you can imagine. This however was a Porcupine ( either that or a very well-fed hedgehog ). I had no idea that they were natives of Italy but apparently they are. What is more, after doing some research, people actually keep them as pets. Can you imagine snuggling up next to one on the sofa to watch TV? Give me a dog any day.
I have deserted mainland Italy for a while. North of Naples the roadside rubbish returned, along with the girls on chairs, so I took a ferry out to the island of Ischia in Naples Bay. I am staying in the busy port town tonight, but it promises great beaches and thermal springs, being volcanic in nature. Even Angela Merkel comes here, so what’s good enough for the German Chancellor is good enough for me.
The rich and super-rich drop by occasionally in their floating palaces, much to the interest of the locals, who stand and stare at the privileged sipping champagne on the aft deck. I couldn’t help comparing their life style to those just a few kilometers away.

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The sea level in the harbour is in places the same height as the stone quay. This creates an interesting situation amongst al fresco diners when a ships wash creates a surge of water. The resulting wave comes through the tables at ankle height. No problem for a scruffy cyclist, but more affluent folk have to lift their expensive footwear high! It kept me amused anyway.

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Ischia was one of the earliest places colonised by the Greeks, and an earthenware cup excavated here has the first rudimentary examples of the Greek language decorating it’s sides. The Romans left more. This aqueduct is still in remarkable condition, testament to the building skills of their masons.

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Being volcanic, this island is extremely fertile and there is still an abundance of flora in full bloom. I can never resist taking pictures of Bougainvillea.

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These fruit and vegetables looked remarkably fresh, and the lemons were the biggest I have ever seen. Tomatoes have such a flavour to them, the olives sweet and full of oil.

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I only cycled 5k today, from one side of the island to another, a distance record for the trip. It was worth the monumental effort just for the view that unfolds, and as I sweep down the hairpins towards the beach and campsite, Matt Monroe is singing ” On days like these ” in my head. He probably had somewhere like this in mind when he sang it.

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End of season

I’m gradually working my way down the coast from Rome towards Naples. I will be meeting people on the Amalfi coast so there is plenty of time to stand and stare. Which is fine by me. Italy has that effect on you, although the northern section of this road does not leave the best impression, lined as it is with rubbish thrown from cars and prostitutes sat on plastic chairs. An interesting combination.
South of Anzio things improve dramatically.

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I had lunch by Anzio harbour ( a name from history to conjour with ). Harbours probably rank higher than squares in my estimation; there is always something to look at. Men mending nets, packing or preparing fish; boats of all varieties and the therapeutic sound of water lapping on hulls. I could have sat there for hours.

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Even though the weather is beautifully warm, for the Italians the tourist season is effectively over. Last night I was the sole occupant of the campsite, and many bars and restaurants have closed.My travel-worn appearance and loaded bike have attracted the attention of locals with time on their hands. I’m happy with that, I’m sure I would do the same.
Breakfast was en route this morning in one of the bars that was still trading. Once again I found it difficult to tear myself away, and because I’m not travelling to any schedule I don’t suppose it really matters.

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Tonight I am camping yards from the breaking surf in Terracina, a town which has a reputation for murals of all kinds, painted everywhere, and superb fish dining. I shall be sampling this shortly.

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Lastly, I have treated the bike to some new bar tape, gold in colour. I think it makes it look very Italian. As I spend so much time looking at it, it may as well be easy on the eye. I’m sure you will rest easier in your beds tonight because of it.

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Rome

The ride down to the Capital is through an unmistakably volcanic landscape. Ancient calderas have very steep hills into and out of them but the views at the the top can be well worth the effort. Some just take your breath away.

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Sweeping down through tall beech woods carpeted with wild cyclamen which perfume the air, is an experience I will always remember. Wonderful.
Roman-Etruscan tombs cut into the soft Tufa rock just appear beside the road. These were raided as long ago as the Middle Ages for any possible valuables.

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Rome has been in continuous occupation for thousands of years, one of the longest in Europe in fact, and you can see the layers of civilisation all around the centre. Even today when we visited, there were several teams of archaeologists at work amongst the ruins. The Colloseum was packed with visitors, and after queuing for 10 minutes, we left. I had seen the inside in 1976, and Remo wasn’t so keen as to stand the throng. It’s a fascinating building though, and sobering to think of the thousands whose last view was of these walls.

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The Vatican dominates the skyline of the western bank of the river Tiber, a powerful place to millions Worldwide. I think I saw more images of the Pope at stalls throughout Rome than I have ever seen in my life today.

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Walking the main routes can rapidly induce claustrophobia, but just one street away another Rome exists, with smaller caf├ęs and less traffic. It always pays to break away from the herd and swim against the stream.

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I had hoped to take some pictures of the Trevi fountain, but disappointingly it was covered in scaffolding and once again surrounded by people. So, here is Anita Ekberg in all her glory from the film La Dolce Vita taking a late bath in the very same place. That dress must have cost a fortune, and probably ruined. That’s art for you.

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One day in Rome hardly pays it the respect it deserves, but I have been here two days now and I’m afraid the legs need to start turning again. Remo heads east across the spine of Italy, and I am riding west for my first sight of the Mediterranean and then down the coast towards Naples. We have had a great few days together, and we will doubtless meet again in the future.

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Under a Tuscan Sun

Another wet day delayed me in Siena, but this morning was beautiful and I set off with my new cycling companion Remo, a Swiss ex racing professional, and quite a character. We were both headed for Rome, so having company seemed like a good idea for the journey.

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We were riding a very old route south, the via Francigena which runs from Liguria in the north down to the capital Rome. This land has seen some history. Countless Legions probably marched this way on their way to conquer, and trudged back defeated at end of Empire. We were just dealing with the hills on the White Roads, which for a cyclist can be challenging at times, but more than worth the effort for the scenery they reveal.

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Tuscany is a seductive place with the capacity to twist the head constantly. It’s easy to see why people fall in love with it and return time after time.

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On a day like today the landscape seems to extend beyond the reasonable limits of the human eye, and blue hills in the far distance, each with its village on top, have an almost fairy tale appearance. Place names such as St Quirico, Montalcino, and St Lorenzo have an evocative ring to them. Sleepy places in the heat of the day.

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Lago di Balsena signalled the end of the days ride, a record for me at 124 k. It must have been Remo’s professional influence. The campsite was idyllic, beside the lake in the extinct volcano, and this late in the season virtually empty. Tomorrow Rome is calling but it will probably be a two day ride to rest the legs from today’s exertions.

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South to Siena

I thought that the Austrian thunderstorm was as bad as it gets, but at 6.00am precisely, the heavens opened over Florence on the day of my departure. It was so loud, and the rain so heavy, that I really thought my puny shelter would just be washed away down the hill. We both survived thankfully, although I was in for a very wet ride that day. The Arno valley South of Florence is not the most scenic of routes and in torrential rain it had little to recommend it. However, once you start to climb into the hills, the landscape changes very quickly, and by the time I had reached my stopping place at Gaiole in Chianti, it was beginning to look like the Tuscany I had expected. On the climb I found this grape vine just hanging into the road on rather an acute bend in the road. Risking life and limb I thought I should sample the local product ( presumably the Chianti variety ). They were so sweet.

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On the same stretch of road I happened upon my first Wild Boar of the trip. It was unusually dark in colour, almost black, and just casually wandered out in front of me from some trees. I’m not sure who had the biggest shock, but very quickly it had returned from whence it came, emitting a loud squeal.
Gaiole in Chianti is famous for a retro bike ride every October which uses the Strada Bianchi ( White Roads ) of the region, and I hate to say it, but it has become a victim of its own popularity. However, I am writing this from a beautiful room in an Albergo overlooking the Main Street, so who am I to complain? Having arrived in the wet, and knowing the tent was soaked and covered in Florentine clay a little luxury was very welcome, and the lady on the desk was totally unconcerned about my condition. She even suggested putting my bike in the bedroom!

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I found a very unpretentious place to eat just down the road, where a husband and wife team provided me with ‘ Drunken Rooster’, a whole chicken cooked in Tuscan herbs and swimming in Chianti wine. Lovely.
I would like to say the morning dawned clear and dry, but another thunder storm in the early hours left heavy rain behind it. I lingered a while as it gradually eased, and during the easy 27 k roll down the valley to Siena the rain stopped and the sunshine was back.
Siena has no suburbs, certainly not on the northern edge. One minute you are ambling through lush vineyards, and then you are in the city. An impressive place, and although busy, I saw only one guided group with a flag waving leader.

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The main square is a sight to behold,and must be a spectacle when they have the horse racing around it in August. I heard more English being spoken in Siena than at any place on my entire ride. A result I imagine of the love for a Tuscan holiday home by the British. I have one here and it moves;
It’ll be gone tomorrow.

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Rome is the next point on the map. The Eternal City. All roads are supposed to lead there, so how can I possibly get lost? We’ll see.