Italy: Milano to Pisa (Part 2)

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

Part 2: to Pisa

Writing on Boxing Day from Papamoa before an afternoon trip to the beach with Steve the cat for company.


The day we left Levanto was a bit of a faff. Olly’s seat-post-clamp broke as we were preparing to leave the campsite and so we had to back and forth between the town’s two bike shops to get it fixed. We then pedalled out of town and straight into the day’s climb. It was a gradual hill that we took slow and steady, pausing for lunch not too far from the top and receiving two positive pips and friendly waves as we sat munching. For the story of our accommodation that night, you must ask us in person and we’ll regale you with the tale over a drink or two…

Montorosso, the first of the five Cinque Terre villages, below.

We didn’t hang about the following morning, as a bit of an insight, and we were headed, first to La Spezia, and then to a Warm Showers host in Carrara crossing from Liguria into Tuscany. At La Spezia we stocked up on supplies and sat at the harbour and reflected on the previous evening. The sun had come out and for the first time in a while I felt too warm in my fleecy leggings. We weren’t overly enamoured by the town and so moved on. A little further along the coast we stopped for lunch, sat on a bench overlooking the sea and listening to the incessant barking of a fraught dog in a nearby apartment building.

Vespas in La Spezia

We arrived at Sara’s and were immediately made to feel very welcome in her lovely home. Sara invited us to prolong our stay and we gratefully accepted despite having had a day off only two days beforehand. Days off the bike often take two forms: discovering or sorting, rarely are they actually about resting. And so we rested (mostly - a bit of life-min / bike-min was taken care of too) and watched the cat and the chickens and helped out a little with English homework too. From the back of Sara’s house there was a good view of, what I’ve called, ‘Marble Mountain’, unfortunately we didn’t get a great photo. The marble quarries in Carrara are incredibly famous, especially as it is this marble that sculptors such as Donatello and Michelangelo used for their works. Many Roman, marble monuments are made from this marble too. You can tour the caves, but we admired from afar.

Olly vs. Cat round 2

Colourful kaky tree in Sara's garden

From Sara’s we headed along the coast and through Viareggio and then inland to Massarosa to another Airbnb stay. A pause to wonder what we’d have done before the days of Airbnb, which you don’t always hear super positive things about… Anyhow, those days are now done. We climbed out of Massarosa and I welcomed the morning ascent to blow away a few cobwebs of overthought. Onwards to lovely Lucca. By this point we were dipping on and off the Via Francigena quite frequently. Lucca was charming and the Renaissance walls were beautiful, reminding us a little of The Quarry in Shrewsbury. We pushed out bikes up to the top of the ramparts and then happily cycled around the mura urbane, weaving out of runners and other cyclists, until our tummies talked and we headed down and in search of some lunch.

Watching some surfers whilst having lunch

Red and white Via Francigena signs

On the mura urbane


A friendly man took our photo

Lunch spot

Artwork in Lucca

We cycled past so many olive trees

That night we stayed in a room with a gun for a lampshade stand and hearts on the walls. The following morning we didn’t get too far before Olly’s chain came clean off. It slipped like a snake onto the ground. Fortunately, Olly had the spares to repair it and continue on. This was only to be the beginning of an eventful couple of days as far as bike mechanics were concerned.

Lunch in a small town square

Olly had managed to find an open campsite for us that night and we rolled up to it ‘under a Tuscan sun’. We didn’t know it then, but this would be our final night camping in Italy. A huge, white, shepherd’s dog barked at us in what I’m going to say wasn’t friendly greeting, before we were shown to our pitch (by its human owner) which was in between olive groves and looking out at vineyards. We were joined a little later by a young, German couple who were doing a short tour of Italy in their caravan and they too were a little miffed by how few campsites had remained open, and of those that did, how the preference was for campervans and motorhomes. Traditional camping methods not welcome! Still, we admired the view together and shared an appreciation for the view, for being outdoors and for travelling.

Camp spot

We woke up to a brilliant blue sky and were so organised and prepared that I should have recognised the warning signs! The day we travelled 2km in as many hours! Another story perhaps best told over a drink! The thought alone of typing out the tale is making me feel a little weary! Though, of course, we laugh now… In essence, there was an off-road route which we favoured over getting back onto the busy road, with the predominantly angry and impatient drivers, that we had used the day before to access the campsite. You can’t fault the theory, but the practice… I was the first to grumble as I skidded in the mud and decided to get off the bike and push; Olly said “a nice morning walk”. It wasn’t too long though before the tables had turned and I was, somewhat facetiously, reminding Olly to be grateful for the stroll through the countryside. And it wasn’t so much countryside as a field of clay that we were pushing our 40-50kg bikes through and wading through ourselves! (And by this point we had become addicted to hazelnut wafers and getting through a packet at least every other day!)

So organised that morning that I could mess around with camera settings

Packing up camp

I started to sink into the mud. I’d stopped caring about how dirty I was a good hour beforehand and I turned to see Olly unclipping and throwing his panniers on to tufts of grass and so I followed suit. Bikes on our backs, we clawed up the hill to an opening that we hoped led to our salvation, and if not that, an actual road (it did not). Back down we went for our panniers and we lugged them up too: the handles digging into my arms and burning my fingers as I stubbornly tried to carry as many as possible in one go to avoid having to go back and forth more times than was absolutely necessary. We got to a flat and mostly grassy section of the next field and all of the wheels had to come off the bikes as they and the mudguards were completely jammed with mud. As Olly tended to the bikes, I reloaded my limbs and, ever the packhorse, plodded to the top of the next little hill. Bikes reassembled we then pushed to the top of another hill and then, it happened: a road sign! No asphalt, but gravel at least. 2km and 2 hours later. We decided to stop for lunch. Olly had heaved my bike up the final gradient and so fixed the brake ties around the brakes and opened my frame bag to take out my stand.

It wasn’t there.

I remember feeling my heart actually sink, or do something that made me physically feel deep sorrow in that moment. Olly went back to get it, as far as he had to go and I made lunch. Seeing as we hadn’t yet made it to a supermarket this required me to set up the stove and use an emergency soup packet. I spilled half of it on the floor. Olly came back triumphant and excited to tell me that he’d found a short cut back to the beginning of the mud field. I can’t say that I was thrilled by the news. Lunch was done and we felt ready to do the remaining 38km of the day, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and when it started to get dark around 4.30. Just as we were about to set off, Olly swore. He had a front flat tyre.

We rode for a good couple of hours that day in the dark and it hit me properly for the first time, as we had had a quick wee onto broken glass by the side of a big bridge that lead into Florence (fortunately a handy footbridge underneath the busy road bridge), that as we cycle around, especially cities, we’ve no real idea if we’re safe or not. But the dark has a tendency to obscure thoughts and play tricks on the mind.

That night we were staying with a Warm Showers host, Carlo, in his apartment just outside of Florence city centre; there was a brilliant tram link that took us right to the centre the following day. Our stay with Carlo was brilliant and I remember it so fondly. His apartment used to belong to his parents and was twice as big, he told us, as the other apartments in the building. There was a balcony where we hung out our washing, careful not to drop any onto the roof below. Carlo welcomed us wholeheartedly and invited us to stay an extra night which was a real help and pleasure. We learned so much about local, and national, history from Carlo and he told us tales of his family and his travels too. We ate (and drank!) so well with Carlo – it didn’t take him long to realise that I am gourmande – and we learned to make two pasta dishes that I know we’ll make forevermore: orecciette with broccoli and ceci pasta. It makes me smile to remember Carlo telling me that I hadn’t chopped the garlic very ‘elegantly’. For the second night of our stay, Carlo had given us directions to a Sicilian bakery nearby that make authentic cannoli. We followed the instructions and found the bakery, but there were no cannoli to be seen, just a sign advertising them. We asked and the lady went into the back to prepare them: put the cream in too soon and the pastry will go soggy. Of course! We walked home with a beautifully tied parcel and then just outside the front of the apartment building, whilst passing the carefully wrapped cannoli between us, we dropped them. I felt so sad as this had been the smallest of gestures to thank Carlo for having us. But Carlo simply smiled and told me, ‘inside of the body is dark’. The cannoli were delicious, especially with the candied orange peel on top.

We had four nights in total in Florence, two with Carlo and two at an Airbnb: another beautiful big apartment with pretty tiled floors and high ceilings that we shared with a couple of other travellers. This was my third visit to Florence and Olly’s first. I had fallen in love with Florence when I first visited with school when I was 17. It was then, at the Uffizi, on an impromptu tour led by Mr Phillips that I ‘got’ art. I had and have fond memories of Florence. We didn’t make it into the Uffizi on this trip, but we got a good feel for the city as we ambled around. Olly was quite awestruck when we turned a corner and first set foot into the Piazza del Duomo and it’s impossible not to be! The views from the Piazzale Michelangelo remain astounding and the Ponte Vecchio remains… overrated. Florence was busy, even in mid-November, but we fought the crowds and sometimes got a little off the beaten track.

Ponte Vecchio

A copy of the statue of David

Eating at the Mercato Centrale was brilliant as it felt like we might be dining where some locals do, and to have so many Italian treats in one cool building made choosing very hard. Olly picked pizza and it was very, very good. We also went to the Odeon Cinema (to see ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’), which was quite a normalising experience and awesome too because of the building and 1920s interior. On our final day in Florence we took a stroll to a park recommended by our Airbnb host, it was just up the road and provided an alternate panorama of the city. We strolled around and made friends with a dog who turned out to be the canine companion of the lady who served us ice-cream later that day. Funny coincidences as I’d incorrectly followed Carlo’s directions to ‘the best ice-cream shop in Florence’ and taken us to a different gelateria to the one he'd proposed. It felt like it was meant to be and the ice-cream was very good. On the lady’s recommendation I had sesame nero and pistachio which was so different and tasty. Due to crossing the bridge before the one we needed, we were then able to wander around a small market in Piazza Santo Spirito which was so nice; on our way into Florence that afternoon we’d walked through an antiques market too.

On the way back form the cinema.

A walk in the park

Evening light on the Ponte Vecchio

Market at Santa Spirito

A glimpse of the Duomo

Sunset in Florence

The next day, after a trip to Decathlon for bike bits, we headed out of Florence and followed lots of unmarked, but brilliant cycle paths that we had been directed to by our Warm Showers host for the night, Gabriele. A final, huge hill that Olly got all the way up, I conceded towards the end, led us to Gabriele’s house in Montelupo Fiorentino where we shared a delicious meal and easy conversation. It transpired that that night, we weren’t too far from the olive grove campsite. Although we had been following a winding path to get to Pisa in time to meet ‘the guys’ the 22nd November was by this point fast approaching.

The day we left Gabriele’s was the day of ‘the accident’ – already infamous amongst our family and friends. It was an unpleasant day and the policeman scolded me for blubbing saying I should have known something like this was going to happen when I embarked upon a cycle tour. He has a point to an extent, but it still isn’t much fun when it happens. The police encouraged us to ‘make a deal’ with the driver who damaged Olly’s bike to avoid having to share insurance details. I had no qualms about sharing insurance deals as we’d paid big bucks for our insurance and as such I thought we might as well use it. The driver backed off 100% when the word ‘assurance’ was thrown into the mix. I do not speak Italian, but in the month we had been in the boot-shaped peninsula, I had noticed a good few similarities between Italian and French. The language barrier was very real, but I had enough nounce not to be taken for a complete ride (impossible for Olly at this stage anyway, right?!). We were given 50€ and train tickets to Pisa. The kilometre walk from Pisa station to our Airbnb took a long time as Olly had to lift his loaded bike onto just the back wheel and roll it all the way.

Our initial impressions of Pisa were thus a little thwarted. After a quick bite to eat we headed out into the drizzle, wheel in hand, and trawled around all of the bike shops in the city, easily walking 10-15km as night set in. No joy anywhere and so we took to the net and silently spent the evening sending emails in a bid to get something sorted before our friends arrived to cycle with us in two days’ time. Marta was on the phone, helping us in any way she could and eventually, when a bike shop in Milan replied and were so proactive in their approach to help us, Marta and her parents absolutely saved the day and we are so, so grateful. Marta’s day picked up a new wheel for Olly in Milan and drove it down to Pisa the following evening: he had been due to stop in at Pisa anyway on the route down to Monteverdi Marittimo. Hateful as the experience was, it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Grazie mille.

The following day, with a plan in place, we strolled around the city and I found Pisa much more enjoyable than on my first trip, but I think I was bussed in and out to see the Leaning Tower and that was all. Colourful buildings lined the river and I was reminded of Girona. The Piazza del Duomo, the home of The Leaning Tower, is magnificent in all of its marbled glory and we had a great pitstop in a student-filled cafĂ© too. (Pisa is home to about 40,000 students as it has one of the oldest universities in Italy.) I found Pisa to be friendly and, like Girona, not too big, but Olly was preoccupied and hadn’t wanted to bring his camera along for the walk and so we headed back to the Airbnb. We had organised a Warm Showers stay for the night before ‘the guys’ arrived and while Olly slowly walked his bike across the city, I shuttled back and forth with the bags. It poured down. Our stay with Luca and his family was filled with warmth, though, and as we shuttled and slowly walked back into the centre of Pisa in time to meet up with Marta, Marc, Hannah and Tim for four days of adventuring together the next day, despite the hassle and hurt of the past couple, it was impossible not to feel excited.

This tiny church apparently used to house one of the thorns from Christ's crown.

I loved this building: the baptistery (where you go to be 'christenised' according to Marta)

At Filter Coffee Lab - awesome muffins

Hopefully 'lucky number 7' from here on in.