Italy: Milano to Pisa (Part 1)

Distance travelled: 4480km
27/10/18 – 22/11/18

Part 1: to Cinque Terre 

Manarola, Cinque Terre

Short-lived were our efforts to keep up-to-date with the blog. Good intentions fell by the wayside in favour of adventure and Olly’s insistence that I prioritise tasks such as scrubbing sandals with a toothbrush in order to ease our entrance into New Zealand – it was worth it by the by. And so I am writing from Helen and Richard’s backyard in Auckland, kia ora, where the tapping of the little laptop’s keys syncopates with the tui bird’s catchy call. The sun is shining in the southern hemisphere and it is quite strange to have catapulted ourselves out of winter and into the lusciousness and warmth of the summer. (It has got me thinking that perhaps the summer is most enjoyed and appreciated when the dark and bitterness of winter has been endured…) But before I get too caught up in the exciting newness of NZ and this next stage of our adventure, I must say ciao, in both of its contexts, to our time in Italy.

A shop front in Levanto.
We should have immediately realised that something was amiss in Italy when we typed our destination into Google Maps and the little bike symbol didn’t appear as an option to click on. The sooner you accept that in Italy ‘car is king’ the safer you will perhaps be when endeavouring to cycle around the boot-shaped peninsula. I say ‘perhaps’ because despite our best efforts an orange Panda ran over the front of Olly’s bike as it pulled away from a roundabout as we were en route to Pisa; the Panda was oblivious to the quite ginormous bike by its side and it should never have pulled up alongside Olly like that in the first place... Olly was physically fine, but the Surly was not, and so ensued the most stressful 24-hours of the trip to date as we ‘made a deal’ with the car-driver at the police’s insistence; journeyed on three wheels instead of four; and sought replacements for parts that were broken beyond repair. This was the apotheosis of weeks of cars passing so close that we wobbled in their wake; of drivers winding down their windows and shouting at us for… being on the road?; of horns being pressed down so hard they scared me half-to-death resulting in my almost falling into the ditch by the side of the road. An instance that sticks in my mind is of two coaches that refused to overtake us on a blind hill, we were impressed and grateful. Once visibility improved, they moved out onto the other side of the road to pass us (fantastic!) only for the car behind them to honk his horn and gesticulate wildly at us. Our slower, greener approach to travel was seriously not appreciated by many in the home of one of the biggest cycling events in the world, the Giro d’Italia. In Italy, we felt like we were trespassing on the roads and this made us cycle scared. We won’t be hurrying back to Italy with our bikes. 

A wonky wheel on our way to The Leaning Tower.  

Our best times in Italy were had off the bike, and we had some really good times. Warm Showers hosts welcomed us incredibly warmly; stays with friends felt like time with family; and the food, my goodness, the food! We visited lots of Italy’s finest sights, including Milan, Cinque Terre, Lucca, Florence, Pisa, Siena and Rome, and by the time we started to properly follow the Via Francigena, a pilgrim route that stretches from Canterbury to Rome, the cycling did become more enjoyable.

On the Via Francigena

When I last wrote, we had just arrived at Emma’s apartment in Milan following a great coffee stop at Upcycle, a fantastic bike café not too far away. Emma and her apartment are wonderful, her cat Nero was good fun too: constantly on the scrounge for food to the extent that we had to hide packaged goods in panniers! Emma made us feel so welcome, asking only that we coloured in something on her world map before we left in a couple of days’ time. Grazie mille, Emma.

On Sunday lunchtime, Elena came over and we had our first authentic Italian lunch, sure to send a snap to Marta to thank her for organising such a fantastic start to our time in Italy. Homemade ‘rice-cake’ and tomato and olive pasta were on the menu before we sampled some of Emma’s birthday cake, a delicious pastiera, a tart made with ricotta and flavoured with orange flower water, which we learned originates from Napoli and is usually eaten at Easter time.

We then all headed into the city to the Milano Montagna Festival and became engrossed in two films about freeriding. I found the event even more interesting having now visited some of the places that were being referenced (notably the French and Swiss Alps), and I was excited too as many of the places we hope to visit were also talked about. There was a real buzz in the room when the compere welcomed Xavier de le Rue, superstar snowboarder who featured in both of the films, to the front of the room to talk about his passion for the mountains. I was totally caught up in the hype when we left to get a drink – I ordered the same as Emma and Elena which was an unusual, bitter, coca-cola type drink that I want to say is called Chinotto. I also want to say that I liked it…!

We then took a night-time stroll around the Navigli District, learning that the canals were originally built purely for the purpose of transferring marble into the centre of the city for the construction of the magnificent Duomo. Emma and Elena talked about how canals that have since closed may be reopened, but that this would require some serious redesign. Elena also took us to a tiny photography shop where black and white photos of a past Milan abound, and close by she pointed out the spot where women used to come do laundry.

On Monday morning we took advantage of our 24-hour metro tickets and headed back into the centre to check out the Duomo. Both Olly and I had been to Milan before, but it felt right to see the cathedral even if we did afterwards, soaked through, think that maybe we could have just continued to seek refuge from the rain in Emma’s apartment. It was because of inclement weather that we had headed down from the mountains and into Milan in the first place as our original plan had been to cross the Dolomites into Slovenia before visiting the north-eastern side of Italy. Plans change, though, and new ones are made. During our four days in Milan it rained a lot as north-western Italy was ravaged by some of the worst storms it has seen in recent years. The weather and the winter both contributed to some of the negative feeling that we fought against during our time in Italy and which prompted our escape to New Zealand.

For most of Monday we had been waiting for a break in the weather to cycle across the city to Elena’s apartment to stay for two nights with her and her family. It never came and we cycled in the torrential rain, blinded by the downpour and the fading light. Elena is another close friend of Marta’s and our stay with the Franchini family was brilliant. Huge, huge thanks to Paolo and Silvana for welcoming us, dripping wet and leaving puddles all over, into their beautiful apartment and for taking such an interest in our trip and helping us to plan our route to Pisa. And to Silvana, for your outstanding cooking, grazie mille: the best food in the best company! I still dream about the leek risotto that you made and I’ve had a go at making the melanzane alla parmigiana, it was nowhere near as good, but the premise was there! The focaccia di Recco, the pesto… Molto, molto buona! (After dinner desserts and tipples went down a treat too!)

Incredible breakfast spread.  Silvana joked about opening a B&B.  She should!

Present from the bakery! 
Cannoncini - om nom nom

Ruga.  11 y/o and counting.  I panicked when I went to the bathroom and she wasn't there...  She'd thrown herself into the laundry basket!

Elena, thank you for showing us around your city and sharing your knowledge of and passion for it to the extent that Milan sneaked its way onto the ‘to go back to’ list. It was fantastic when on Wednesday, panniers repacked and socks now dried, Elena cycled with us out of the city along the navigli and towards Pavia. It was hard when Elena turned around and we had to say goodbye.

All of the main sights...

Onwards we went on this new leg of our adventure towards Pavia. We made it a fair distance before we had to put on our waterproofs. Everyone had encouraged us to stop at the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery, and so we did… at lunchtime when it was closed. We bumbled around for a couple of hours, counting out coppers to pay for an espresso in order to seek shelter from the drizzle in a café (we had no cash and there were no banks – pitiful). The Certosa di Pavia was impressive and after a quick look around we joined back up with the canal path and cycled to Pavia.

Mega marble

We had a super Warm Showers stay with Guillaume and Elisa in Pavia and spent the night happily putting the world to rights. From Pavia we headed out into the countryside and evidence of the recent rain was clear to see as rivers ran high and fields were flooded, even the paddy fields seemed saturated. We cycled through flat countryside and so many spiders’ webs. These webs stretched right across the road and stuck to us like glue!

Cobwebs criss-crossing the field

We stopped for a cereal bar next to a road sign strewn with bullet holes, which was a little disconcerting, and then later in the day ferociously rung our bells as we trudged along a muddy track in a bid not to be shot at by hunters. We arrived in little Lomello and found our way to Ausilia’s place, welcomed into a wonderful apartment dedicated to cycle tourists by Gigi, her brother. A fire (in a funky machine that we saw a few times during our time in Italy) blazed in the apartment and we showered and snacked before sharing dinner with Ausilia who was so passionate about cycling and adventure. After a tour of Lomello and an espresso in the local bar we set off back into the countryside, heading for Novi Ligure.

Ausilia is a super endurance cyclist and mountain biker.

At Novi Ligure we stopped in at the Bicycle Museum before heading back out into the rain to meet Simone, our host for the night. The warmth of Simone’s apartment was very welcome after a day cycling in the often misty rain. The reality of the shorter, darker days really hit us today as by the time we arrived at Simone’s place, at 6 o’clock, it was dark. We had a super tasty takeaway of farinata and focaccia di Recco for dinner and in the morning, Simone’s approach to porridge revolutionised my own – something for which both me and Olly, what with it being his breakfast of choice, are very grateful.

Town square lunch spot.

At the Coppi museum.

Dark nights.

Drizzly days.

The next day’s cycling remains one of the soggiest, which is a shame because theoretically it was a ride that took us up and through a national park. Visibility was nil and lunch was a swift, stood-up affair. We had booked into an Airbnb in the tiny town of Casella and ended up staying two nights just so that everything could dry out! Massimo’s place was all that we needed and it was here that we finally bit the bullet and booked our flights to New Zealand. Massimo locked himself out of his house when he welcomed us into ours and to say thank you for letting him pop in and out he invited us for a drink ‘at the café next to the supermarket’. We arrived and were welcomed so warmly by a small band of locals who were all enjoying the aperitivo: little snacks on the bar for you to enjoy with a drink. We ended up having two! The Barbera wine was delicious.

From Casella we made it to Chiavari on the coast, another Airbnb. Our daily expenditure was creeping up and the weather and the winter were largely ‘to blame’. We had thought that we would camp in any and all weathers without fail, but theory and practice had us in a spin. We’ve both said we should probably have tried harder to wild camp, what with most campsites being closed, but the reality of the bad weather in Italy at the time was no joke. During the cycle to Chiavari, we hit the 4000km mark and celebrated it at the side of quite a busy road. We had taken a cycle route earlier in the day, but it resulted in our having to push our bikes up such a steep and slippery slope that we couldn’t help but laugh. We stuck to the roads after that.

4000km from home!

Loving life with a Thermos

As we approached Chiavari we were able to follow a cycle path alongside an estuary to the Mediterranean Sea; it felt like a long time since we’d last seen this same sea. We had two nights in Chiavari as the forecast was predicting very bad wind and rain, and all day we had seen ‘yellow alert’ signs flashing in various towns. However, the bad weather didn’t come and as a result I got quite caught up with worrying about how stop-start our journey was becoming, and how luxurious too! On our day in Chiavari we took the train along the coast, first to Recco to try authentic focaccia di Recco, and then to Santa Margherita. Evidence of the storms were clear here, with all sorts washed up in cordoned off sections along the seafront. Despite recommendations, we didn’t make it to Portofino or Rapallo, the other two big towns that make up ‘The Italian Riviera’: both towns had been featuring heavily in the news as a result of the damage they had sustained.

Train station selfie.  Olly assures me that he is having a good time on the trip...

Bit breezy!

Elevensies.  Focaccia di Recco IN Recco.  (Thanks for the recommendations, Paolo!)

At Santa Margherita.
The next day’s cycling was good fun! We travelled from Chiavari, never losing sight of the coast for long, to Levanto, where we camped for two nights. It was good to be back in the tent, even though it meant cooking dinner in the dark. (It was whilst camping at Acqua Dolce that Olly suddenly woke me up by switching on his headtorch. In my partly eye-masked, one-ear-plugged daze, he explained that there was something in the tent – and I thought the days of being on ‘bear watch’ were behind us! The campsite was home to a few cats and Olly is absolutely adamant that one of them attempted to take a nap in/steal a snack from our tent that night.)

Our first stop on the road to Levanto was at Sestri Levante where we turned off the main street and on to the cobbled road running parallel to it. We needed some bread for lunch and a snack for Olly, and so we stopped in at a panetteria. As I ordered farinata (a thin bread/savoury pancake made from chickpea flour) and a biscotti, I explained to the man in my best Italian (“Inghilterra, Nuova Zelanda, in bici”) what we were up to. I said ‘grazie mille’ and pootled out of the lovely bakery, only to be waved back in and handed two pieces of focaccia too, 'for New Zealand'. We hopped back on our bikes and bumped down the cobbled street with a little bit of extra fuzz in our hearts.

One of my favourite memories from our time in Italy comes from later that day: a cycle path through tunnels from Framura to Levanto. It was incredible! We dodged water dripping down from the roof and puddles on the floor as we whizzed along the magnificent cycleway, an example of Italy getting it so right for those on a pedal-powered journey. To get to the tunnel, though, was a bit of a to-do and, although he’ll deny it, Olly lost a bit of a his cool. We were on one side of the coastal railway and the cycle route was visible on the other. Dutifully following the Garmin’s instructions, and thus the route we had carefully planned and loaded on to it, we cycled right down to the sea and a tiny harbour; this included getting off our bikes and walking them down some wide steps and past two fisherman, the fact that they didn’t turn to look at us I took as a good sign. When I caught up with Olly I saw him staring at a glass lift: that was our way up to the cycle path on the other side. We called the lift and down it came, Olly and his bike got in and he pressed the ‘up’ button. The doors didn’t close. Olly tried to move further into the lift. Nothing. He came out, the lift went up. We called the lift down again. After more shuffling and huffing and puffing, it struck me that although Olly and his bike weren’t obstructing the lift doors, something must be in the way of a sensor. Off came a couple of panniers and suddenly the doors closed! Before I had chance to prop up my bike and take a photo, Olly was getting out at the top. My turn: it was good fun seeing the little boats shrink in size as I moved towards the tunnel.

Descending to the sea.

The cycle path on the other side to the one we were on.

Olly and The Great Glass Elevator

Awesome cycleway through the tunnel

Levanto is a cool place: a little town with a bit of surfing scene and too many bakeries to try them all (though I did hunt out some farinata and focaccia for lunch the day we left – each from a different place). We had two nights camping in Levanto in order to explore Cinque Terre: five, colourful, little villages built into the cliffs along the coast that are a UNESCO world heritage site. We walked from the campsite to the train station (I had to run back as I forgot my purse…) and bought the Cinque Terre Card, which meant we had unlimited access to the trains between Levanto and La Spezia, Wi-Fi access at the train stations and access to the toilets there too! I’d hoped we would be able to hike between at least a couple of the villages as this is what I remember enjoying the most from my first visit in 2013, but due to the recent bad weather all the hiking trails were closed. This was disappointing and I think Olly would have enjoyed Cinque Terre more had we been able to climb the hills.

We skipped the first village the train stops at, Montorosso, the biggest of the five villages, at the ticket man’s recommendation, only to find ourselves back there when one of our trains was cancelled and we had an hour to spare. It was a real fleeting visit that we had, though, partly due to restricted numbers being allowed in at any one time due to cliff and road damage.

We first got off at Vernazza, which I think might be my favourite village. Vernazza has a little bit of everything, unlike some of the other villages, being a good mix of colourful buildings, small eateries and winding side streets so that you feel like you’re exploring. We got a slice of pizza and ate it sat on a bench looking back at the village.

Trains leave each station once an hour and an hour is enough time to wander around each village. We next got off at Corniglia. The first time I visited (“Europe 2013”), I remember hiking to Corniglia and then eating an amazing pesto, mozzarella and pomodorini bagel and sipping lemon granita. I’d really wanted to relive this memory, but we didn’t quite get our timings right / faffed around with decision making and as such we snatched a bite from a little store on Riomaggiore, although good it wasn’t quite the same. Corniglia isn’t as picturesque as other villages, and the walk to it from the station is beastly (so many steps), but I think it is the place to eat. Homemade gelato shops abound and I’m convinced the little café that I ate at is still there, just down from the bus stop.

These little Paiggios that sounded like lawnmowers and which only went slightly faster than we did

"My café"

View of Manarola from Corniglia

At Corniglia the train was cancelled and so we went back to Montorosso before heading on to Manarola. Without a doubt, it is the most beautiful village and along with everybody else there we fought for a spot to take ‘that photo’. I got tapped on the shoulder and asked to move out of a selfie at one point, which is when I got a bit grumpy about the fact Manarola seems to have become nothing more than an Instagram photo. There is nothing to eat there. Perhaps I was just hungry.

Finally to Riomaggiore, where we were able to eat something! We ordered a spinach pastry roll and one of the most delicious pastry somethings we have had all trip, but we forgot what it was called… We’d found it hard to choose between a cannoli and the mystery something the first time around and so I went back and bought a cannoli too! It was good, but not as good as the first, crème-patisserie-filled, sweet something. At Riomaggiore there were more photo shoots taking place and by this point my camera was firmly stuffed in my bag. Olly took a few of the picturesque buildings by the harbour, which you go down to from the station.

Oh, Cannoli!

And so then it was back on the train for the ride back to Levanto and just as we got on it started to rain. We counted ourselves very lucky having revelled in blue skies all day. We had our first, proper Italian pizza for tea to round off a wonderful day off the bikes.