We write to you from a hotel in a mountain village in rural central Italy.
We are enjoying being indoors, as it is -5 degrees outside, and thus we deemed the tent inappropriate. The temperature has dropped significantly due to an advancing cold front and a change in elevation. Our current elevation (almost 1000m) is even greater than we expected because all the villages in this area are built on top of the (rather large!) hills. This was done for defensive purposes but caught us off guard since we are used to cities being in valleys. The rides have been chilly, but since we are almost constantly going uphill as we head towards Naples we are keeping warm enough! We can proudly say we cycled through our first snowfall today, and did so with smiles on our faces while singing Christmas carols.
We first caught wind of the approaching cold snap from a fisherman while awaiting our ferry in Montenegro. This sudden change in temperature threw the seas into chaos and made for an interesting ride. We took the night ferry and made a nest on the floor of the economy seating area, but spent most of our potential sleeping hours rolling all over the place to the motion of the ocean. It was quite the ride, and although we didn’t get much rest, it was a very memorable! Also worth mentioning was the Italian we met while cycling out of the ferry. He proudly informed us that he had visited Resolute Nunavet in May. When we asked why, he said it was to hunt polar bear. He was dead serious, and said he took a mature male. Is this legal?
From the moment we arrived in Italy, we could tell we would love this country. We were immediately captivated by the vivaciousness of the streets in Bari, the city we landed in. Italian driving is a form of organized chaos, but it is fun, and it works, and we felt surprisingly safe since everyone on the road is super aware. There is lots of honking, lots of random parking, lots of vespas, and absolutely no pedestrian attention to crosswalks. All the streets are lined with the apartment balconies, bringing residential life into the street and adding to the environment’s liveliness. Fantastic!
In Bari, Christmas for Caitlin came early and we welcomed the newest member of our cycle touring family: a new Brooks saddle. Caitlin had been riding the factory seat (which might as well have been a block of concrete) since Amsterdam and her behind was sad. Alec generously gave the gift of pure riding pleasure with a wide, flexible and springy leather saddle. Brooks saddles are known throughout the cycling community as the absolute best option. It feels like riding on a cloud and has made touring through Italy that much more enjoyable!
But it’s hard to not enjoy touring through Italy! Although it has been cold, we have really lucked out with the weather: lots and lots of sunshine, which is very welcome after our rainy November. And although the overall temperature is chilly, the sun warms things up quite nicely and yesterday afternoon we enjoyed a wonderful 18 degrees! The scenery is breathtaking, with lots of rolling meadows and cute villages. The rural roads are virtually empty, with an occasional vehicle announcing themselves with a friendly honk and stray dogs that consider chasing bikes lots of fun. In fact, one morning three dogs ran with us for a couple of kilometres into the centre of town… very sweet.
Something worth mentioning about this area is all of the windmills. We thought we saw a lot in Germany, but we have already seen thousands in Italy. They look very beautiful against the agrarian landscape; however, we have learned they are also an indicator of potentially difficult bike rides! We spent one afternoon battling the wind which in the end became so strong we had to walk our bikes. But, c’est la vie, and we remain inspired by the commitment this area has made to renewable energy.
But the thing that has made our Italian journey so incredible is the hospitality. We are amazed at it. People here are unbelievably friendly, and wonderfully generous. We have had a free coffee (or two) every day, and have sometimes turned down some offers for fear of over-caffination. We have been given muffins, Christmas cake, bread sticks, and the best mozzarella cheese we have ever had… and we have only been here four days! Everyone is excited to hear our story and to share their livelihoods with us. One wonderful experience was being taken into the back of a family-run cheese store to see how they make their products (accompanied with delicious samples).
An amazing thing about all these acts of generosity is that unlike the other countries we have visited, very little English is spoken in Italy. But these language barriers clearly do not lead to isolation, as we are still able to share in each other’s company and get mutually excited about the cultural exchange. We really love that English is not widely spoken here as we feel more immersed and it is rather fun to try to make conversation. That being said, we are both trying to absorb as many words and phrases as possible so we can communicate better as our Italian adventure continues.
Another thing that reminds us that we are truly in a different country is the Italian business hours. Stores seem to be rarely open: everything closes on the weekend and there is a two to three hour lunch break in the mid-afternoon when everything also shuts down. On our first day we were unaware of this and, because it gets dark so early, we found ourselves without food for dinner. Alec wisely found us the only food available to buy at 3 pm from a cafe on the outskirts of town… cheesecake. With a dinner like that, you couldn’t really feel too sorry for yourself!
(We should note that although our blog highlights the outrageousness of our diet, it really has improved since our first week in the Netherlands and now includes good amounts of dairy, fruits, veggies, grains and meat. Our parents should be proud).
Something else fabulous about being in Italy right now is the Christmas spirit. Things felt more seasonal right from the ferry, as Bari is the burial place of St. Nicholas! Every store and house has decorations up and, due to predominate Catholicism, every sign wishes a direct Merry Christmas, or Buone Natale. The streets are also all decorated, and there is a wonderful buzz in the air, which is perhaps contributing to our experiences of generosity. We are excited to be in this country has December 25th draws nearer.
We will catch up with you again in Naples,
Alec and Caitlin
P.S. You might be interested to know that our determined French friends got through Northern Albania by getting a ride through the flooded area with a military 4 x 4 truck! They are now in Macedonia, in even chillier weather than us, and continue to head east.
P.P.S. Happy birthday Papa Allan!