Wednesday, 22 June 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum...

No, it did, it really did!

To save yet more money, I took the train from Florence to Rome(I've cycled every other part of Italy - those are the only two trains I've taken) and when I was on the train, a young Brazilian girl, Ana, was desperate to find a loo on the four hour journey. After eventually finding one several carriages down, we struck up a conversation and it turned out she was working in Milan and travelling around Italy and was staying for a few days in Rome. She was staying in a hostel very close to the station and very central, so I asked if I could go with her to find a room in the same hostel. It turned out they were full but just on the landing next door, another hostel had a spare room and I managed to get booked in there. All be it when I say hostel, it was a Polish man's apartment in which he lets out the rooms to young backpackers and he and his wife sleep on the sofa. However to get to the shower you had to go through his tiny front room and then I had to share the room with two others on a very uncomfortable camp bed with a matress that dipped in the middle. Ahh! the joys of budget travel! Luckily the two girls I shared with were Mexican, living in America and we struck up a good conversation and got on well. I also met Igor - the polish man's dog! A really sweet, brown, smooth haired terrier type, who greeted you at the door with wagging tail when you came in. He was the ugliest dog I have ever seen!

Ana and I met up for dinner the next evening as we both had our different sight seeing routes to do. I spent a lovely day going from sight to sight that included the Vatican, the Trevi fountain, the vast Emanuelle 11 monument that seems to take up much of Rome and then finally on to the Colosseo. So you see, through a chance encounter on a train with someone desperate for the loo (sorry Ana - hope you don't mind me mentioning this!) I managed to find accommodation without any effort while on my way to the Forum.

Talking of dogs and the wonderfully ugly Igor, I experienced the Dogs of Pompei. I stayed for a few days r&r in Pompei in a campsite right next to the entrance to the ruins. But Pompeii ruins are renowned for the stray dogs that roam the site - very friendly, and well fed but they do latch on to visitors and follow you around the site, expecting food. Then they just lie around sleeping until the next victim comes along. But these dogs are very welcome in Pompeii and there are signs up asking visitors to 'adopt a dog' - a bit like 'adopt an elephant' you don't take it home you just pay so much towards its keep every month. I have a wonderful photograph of one of these dogs sleeping on its back,legs in mid air, in the middle of the railway platform of the Pompeii railway station (which is also opposite the ruins entrance) . Nobody minded -let sleeping dogs lay, I say.

One of the Pompeii highlights was a trip up to the Vesuvious crater's edge - 1,400 m up. Its a huge and very deep crater. And still active! Unlike, thank goodness, the previous day, when I camped in a campsite -actually in the volcano crater! It was Volcano Solfater and I didnt need to climb up into it. It was a crater just off the main road. Half of the crater was wooded, where the camp site was sited and just a few steps away, there was the barren crater enclosed by its steep wall of rock. It took me a long time to realise that the bad egg smell wasn't because I hadnt had a shower in a couple of days, it was due to the still active sulphur jets coming up from the depths of the crater. Although by the time I scraped my, by now, very sweaty clothes off, I don't think I could tell the difference!Ahh! the joys of budget travel!

But oh! the sights that Ive seen since I started this trip. They get better and better every day. The camp site at Pompeii was in the middle of an orange grove - most of the trees widowed of their fruit but a few still had one or two stubborn, hangers on, dangling precariously from the boughs - just waiting to crash down on an unspecting camper van - or worse - a tent!

Then there were the Apennines. I have just arrived in Matera after spending the last five days crossing the delightful and stunning scenery of the mountains. Mostly peddaling up hill every day but being the Appian way, the Romans built these roads with horses and carts in mind and therefore while steep, the gradients were gradual and I had climbed surprisingly high without realisingit until I looked back at where I had just come from.

And the mountain people that I met were truly wonderful. Yesterday, two events happened that confirmed my view that 99% of people in the world are kind and generous and that those with least give the most. Yesterday this ideal came true. I was crawling up the mountain and stopped for a breather when this woman came out of her hill side house and beckoned me over. Then her husband came out, then the grandmother. All chatting outside the gates and swopping e mails and taking pictures.(The grandmother, a very diminutive little lady - concerned that I wasn't married yet)And just before I was about to go, the mother rushed into the house and brought out some savoury bread with the most delicious ham, cheese and blackpepper filling and a carton of orange juice. All I could offer was my by now, very squashed and rather warm bag of cherries! They politely declined and wished me well on my journey and insisted I send them e mails and the photographs. But what generousity! The father who was a train driver, even gave me a business card about his son. I think there was a slight hint of a possible arranged marriage there somewhere!

And then in the afternoon after a long and steep 3 mile crawl up the hill side round steep hair pin bends to Grassano, I stopped at the first bar in the narrow little streets that I came across and was informed by the bar man that there was no hotel. Enza, the manageress came in and spoke good English, as her mother lives in New York, and after a lot of lovely bantering and chat, she disappeard and on her return told me of a local chap just a few hundred yards away who would put me up in his spare apartment for 30 euros. She and her husband then got in their car and insisted I follow them on the bike to the flat. It was only walking distance but they inisted on taking me there. Then I nearly fell over laughing as the owner was a man of a certain age, who was a body builder blonde hair in a pony tail,and dressed in pink top and very short pink shorts! But the apartment was wonderful. Very modern and clean and hard to beat for 30 euros.

The evening was spent having the best meal that I have had in Italy. Enza fussed clucked over me like a mother hen making sure the bottle of Chardonnay arrived in a cooler bucket of ice and that I had every thing I wanted. The spagetti was fabulous and this was the food that I had been waiting for since arriving in Italy.This was not your tourist, 'warm it up in the oven' type, as is has been in places like Florence and Rome, but real home cooked and utterly delicious. After the meal, we sat outside her house by the front door with her daughter, and two other local villagers, all chatting and taking pictures, with Enza working hard as the go between translator. To top it all, as I left to go back for a relatively early night at the apartment, Enza insisted that I was escorted back with another of the village women who happened to be going that way. It was only a few hundred yards but that wasnt the point! Such generosity and kindness from complete strangers to a weary and bedraggled traveller. The only thing I regretted afterwards, was drinking that whole bottle of Chardonnay - not good for the cycling the next morning!

And then there is my bike, Vincent, my reliable companion, who hasn't let me down yet. He never moans, never gets tired, never complains when going up the hills and here, where I am staying for a day, in the fascinating town of Matera, he even has his very own balcony to sleep in outside my room.

I guess the only time Vincent wasn't happy was when I cycled from Bay of Naples to Pompeii. Naples and the coast road around it has the worst roads in Italy! I only did 25 miles that day but the concentration levels were immense. Not only did I have the Naples traffic to deal with but also I cycled for 20 of those miles on cobbled streets. But these were large slabs of cobbles and very pitted and potholed which made it twice as bad. It was a very slow journey. It was the most bone jarring, teeth rattling cycleride I have ever done. And on top of that the piles of rubbish sacks left at the roadside was appalling. It was like having a continuous smell of rotting debris lining your route for miles and miles. These rubbish tips were piled high too.I've since learned that it wasn't due, as I at first thought, to a bin man's strike, it was because of the Napoles Mafia! - the Comorra.

Aparently The Comorra have a monopoly on the Naples and surrounding towns garbage collection and because of the corruption, they dump the rubbish anywhere, especially in illegal places. Hence the ordinary house rubbish piles up in the streets because there arn't enough landfill sites and the Mafia arn't interested unless they can dump toxic waste in innapropriate areas. Well, ordinary rubbish is no fun is it!

This was a prioity issue when Berlusconi was elected in 1980's but all he did was arrest a few of the top Comorra and promised more landfill. But judging by what I saw (and on the Italian news programme the other day) nothing much is being done. It really will be an enourmous health hazard if nothing is done about it soon. Italy - it really is like being in the middle of a real life Godfather movie.

Well now I'm having a few days rest and exploration of the 'town of stones' in Matera, where the old quarter has its buildings and churches built into the rocks, each area linked by steep steps and the whole town clinging to the top of a ravine.

I'm still trying to get some of my photos on this blog but for some reason having difficulty with this - so bear with me.

Also, if Hedi and Franz are reading this - COULD YOU E MAIL ME ON MY EMAIL. as I seem to have deleted your e mail address from my contacts.I have been trying to text your phone but I don't think that is working either. But please do get in touch. Thanks.

Well, after leaving Matera where I am writing this blog from, there are only two more towns, Taranto and and the port of Brindisi left in Italy before I depart for my fifth country, Greece. I have had blue sky days for the last month and here in southern Italy for the past few days the temperature has been hitting 32 degrees. It is hot! But I am aclimatised to it now as I have been travelling slowly so I'm hopeful I can handle the heat of Greece in July! But rather the heat of Greece than the monsoons in Asia, which if I time it correctly, I shall avoid.

catch up with you all again soon

(copyright and photographs: Deborah Anne Brady: all rights reserved)


Tuesday, 7 June 2011


Anybody who travels, especially on a budget, understands that nothing will be as comfortable after you leave home. Once you understand that, then you accept it and start to enjoy the journey for what it is. Anne Mustoe who inspired my trip wrote about this aspect in not so many words in her book. But although I have accepted that nothing is or will be the same as being in your own environment at home, I did have my first real low point of my journey so far, a short while ago. Every long journey has its high and its low points but this particular low point stuck with me for some time and I found it difficult to let go. To anyone of you it may seem sad but a bit trivial but maybe when you are on the road, things become amplified and probably become out of proportion than if you were at home.

I was heading out on deserted main road after a wonderful restful day from cycling in Montreaux. I cycled from the campsite along the lake shore and spent the day exploring Chatau Chillon made famous by Byron's poem - The Prisoner of Chillon -and spent a gorgous evening having a picnic meal by the lakes edge watching the sun set over the lake with the mountains and the Dents du Midi range as a backdrop. Setting out early the next morning - a Sunday - on the deserted road towards the Alps, I noticed an abandoned fox cub huddled in the grass by the roadside. It must have only been about a cuple of months old and as I approached it was obviously abandoned and half starving as it was thinner than it should have been for its age. I wasn't sure what to do as there was nobody to flag down and the ones I did, sped past. As I approached it got to is feet and shivering with fear and weakness it eventually managed to scamper away into the long grass away from the road. I felt awfull and helpless as there was nothing I could do for it. For days after I felt very low and couldn't get this little fox cub out of my mind. It really did effect my mood for 2 or three days afterwards. I wish I could have done more but what I don't know. I often wonder how it fared. Did it make it? Somehow I doubt it. Nature can be so cruel.

That was the low point so far. And unfortunately, I am sure there will be others. But there have also been some major highlights. Almost too many to mention even though I have only been cycling for one month and 4 days. But I will be honest. I took a bus over the Col in the Alps. I don't know whether I was still affected by the fox cub but I just didnt have it in me to do it that day. The bus followed the same route all but the actuall col itself but this is a trip that I will do as I see fit and that wasn't to be my day. Maybe when I get time I will go back - luggage free and attempt it again.

Then of course the hightlights have been so many. That day in Montreux, visiting Italy, and Parma and Piacenza where I had a private viewing of the Botticelli Virgin - wow! what a moment that was! And I have seen the opulence and wealth of Monet's gardens at his house in Giverny France to the picturesque village where Renoir lived and the sites around the village that he painted, to Gustave Courbets riverside and comfortable house and village to the abject poverty and desolation of Vincent Van Gogh's lonely little attic room in Auvers Sur Oise, kept exactly as it was in his day without any renovation - a heart wrenching scene as his room was only 7ft x 11ft with a tiny attic window. Ironically, now the society that look after the room and museum are trying to get the money to buy one of his original paintings to hang in his room. They need at least 35 million pounds to buy one!! Doesn't that say something. He and his brother Theo lie together, their simple paupers gravestones lie side by side in the cemetry at the top of the town.

And then there is Florence! I am spending a couple of days rest and relaxation in Florence as it really is the Mecca for my artistic theme. So many sights. One day I shall return to Florence but with more money! I had to cherry pick the sights I wanted to see to save money but I managed some of the most important including, Michelangelo's Bacchus, and Donnatello's absolutely stunning and vibrant wooden sculpture of Magdalen. Not to mention the Cathedral of course.

People often want to know how my day works out. Well, since solo travelling, I have edged myself into a routine that really works for me. I have camped every night since being on my own which has kept the cost down and been really enjoyable considering I wasnt too keen at first. I now though look for YHA or cheap rooms as I find the campsites are too far out for me to really explore the towns and villages that I pass. So camping or not, my routine is that I rise at 6am ready to pack and cycle by 7am. That means I am cycling in the cool and quiet of the morning and by quite early in the morning I have already done the first 10 or 15 miles. If i am doing about 45 - 50 miles a day, that makes it easier to have rest stops for coffee and allows time to explore a city for a few hours before having plenty of time to cycle on and arrive at my destination in plenty of time to get to the tourist office and seek accommodation or a camp site. Then after sorting that out, I shower and change and have time to go out for a meal and sit in the town square with a good meal and watch the world go by. I prefer this routine now even though it is more expensive as I am getting to see the towns as I go without rushing. It suits me anyway and unless a camp site is needed, I shall stick to this routine.

Then when I get back to my rooms, I have my diary to write, look at the photos for the day, write the postcards, etc.. My days and evenings are very busy.

Then I must of course mention the people I have met so far. In Bologna I met a German couple who were spending a few weeks cycling Italy. Hedi and Franz sat and had a drink with me in Bologna square and because they were cycling a different route, we promised we would all meet up in Florence. We did just that and had a wonderful fun evening meal in Florence the previous night and have become good friends in a very short time. They want me to visit them in Germany - which I will certainly do when I have finished this trip. Hedi was very keen (and I am very flattered)to come to one of my talks in England about this trip when I get back. Meantime we shall definately keep in touch. Then there was Luca and his American friend, Antonia who gave me a great deal of local knowledge about the surrounding countryside.

Then there are the funnies: the time at Champlitte sitting outside a cafe where they were having some decking made. The French builder had only half finished it and his drills, hammers and nails were strewn everywhere. He kept picking up a hammer, only to knock in a nail or two, then rest again and sit down and chat to the other French customers. Great! Then he would pick up his hammer again after another drink and hammer another nail in before sitting down once again to chat. Wonderful! Can't help thinking that in Britain we would all be moaning about how the work never gets done. In France, its the socialising that is the most important bit. The manageress knew it would eventually get done so she didn't care one jot!!

Then finally, the moment when I saw a deer about 20 yds from me, dart out from a bush and jump in the river, swim to the other side and disappear into the woods on the bank on the other side. What a moment! Mind you, if anyone saw me emerge from a tent at 5.30am in the morning, they would want to run a mile as well!

Only my fourth country so far and only a month and 4 days of cycling. And what a month it has been. I am sure it will continue.

Catch up with you next month.

(copyright Deborah Anne Brady.)