Thursday, August 11, 2011

Two Weeks of Hell in Heaven, Part I

It was raining in the night of July 20, 2011, when me and six of my Czech friends met in order to embark on one of the longest and most difficult vacations of my life. Duke, Glen, Míra, Preiby, Tomáš, Vašek, and me stuffed the van we rented with our bicycles and the little luggage we each had in our bike bags. We asked Duke's father to drive us to Zurich, and then take the van back to Mariánské Lázně, our hometown. Our plan was to bike from Zurich to Rome in two weeks, passing through Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican City on the way. If you do the math and know some something about European geography, you will know that this trip involved biking over 1500km and required us to pass the Alps once and the Apennines twice. It also involved biking along Italy's hilly Ligurian Sea coast, and climbing up San Marino's Monte Titano, or Titan Mountain. In other words, almost every day we had a very hilly climb up a mountain or mountain pass, and almost every day we biked over 100km. Our longest stage was more than 170km long.

Sunrise in Zurich.

Other than its length, the second feature of our trip was its low budget. The van ride from Mariánské Lázně to Zurich, three train rides in Italy, and a flight from Rome's Fiumicino Airport to Prague with our bicycles only cost us about $250 in total. In addition, our food budget was about five euros per person per day on average. We would buy the cheapest breads, cheeses, yogurts, cookies, and such in supermarkets, then sit right in front of them and ate. Depending on the country, locals passing us by gave us bad or worse looks, or, if we were lucky, no looks at all.   We got the most curious looks when doing our most favorite thing, buying the largest watermelon that the supermarket had, cutting it into two pieces, and eating it out with spoons right outside of the supermarket. We only ate a warm meal twice during our two weeks, and only drank our first cup of coffee on the ninth day.

Eating a melon outside of a supermarket.

Most importantly, however, we spent no money at all on accommodation. We set up camp wherever possible,  and always almost at dark, so that we wouldn't get caught by police or locals for doing it. This was not always possible, and not always comfortable. The morning of our first night, we got caught by Lichtenstein police for illegal camping, and were asked to leave immediately. The fourth night, we didn't find "accommodation" until about 3am, and the ninth night we camped out in the open on top of a mountain pass in the Apennines, getting extremely wet and cold during the night. Our last night we spent in a sketchy quarter in the outskirts of Rome, where some of us got no sleep at all because of being afraid that our bicycles would get stolen by sketchy hooded types walking around us all night. In general, though, the places that we slept in were not bad at all and I believe that they are worth mentioning.
A view of Liechtenstein. We slept in one of the fields below, on the closer side of the river.

On our first night, after having biked about 130km from Zurich to Vaduz, Liechtenstein, we camped out in tents on a grass field next to the Rhine River, just outside of the city. Because the grass was soft, and because we only got woken up by the police at about 10a.m., we slept long and well. On our second night, we camped in tents next to the Sufrensee lake in Sufers, Switzerland, in about 1400m above the sea level. The lake was beautiful and the environment was quiet, and though it rained at night, we slept well again. Perhaps it was because of the kilometer in elevation we gained that day. On our third day, we climbed up to 2065m above the sea to Paso di San Bernardino, or St. Bernard Pass, and then descended to Lugano, the largest city in Ticino, Switzerland's only Italian canton. We hoped to sleep on the shores of the beautiful Lake Lugano, which however proved impossible because the whole area was crowded with houses. We had to sleep in a more humble place, a small strip of grass between Switzerland's Highway #2 and a graveyard. The bad thing was that the highway was extremely loud and that we weren't able to bathe in the lake. On the other hand, we found fresh tap water at the graveyard, and used it to wash our sweaty bodies at night, a true luxury after three days of no showering. Also, the third night was the last night that we bothered to put up the tents. From then on until the end of the trip, we only slept in the open.

Us at Paso di San Bernardino.

On the fourth day, we went from Lugano, Switzerland, to Milan, Italy. From this day until the end of our trip we got exposed to crazy Italian drivers, horrible Italian roads, and dysfunctional Italian road signs. About fifty percent of Italian drivers have a very dangerous habit of blowing the horn before passing a biker. I believe that they do it because they want the biker to become aware of them, which is unnecessary given that their car's engine can be heard from far away. The only effect that blowing the horn has on the biker is that they freak out and do something stupid, such as turning suddenly to the left, straight into the car's way. Another problem about biking in Italy are its very bad roads. Their asphalt is often broken, especially on the sides which bikers are supposed to use. Finally, the Italian road sign system must have been designed by an idiot. For example, when we got to a roundabout, the sign would say "Milan 40km," but as soon as we got off the roundabout, there was a "Milan 36km" sign. Finally, about five kilometers later, there was another sign saying "Milan 40km". This repeated itself many times over in Italy. Even worse, though, is that small, regional roads often become highways out of nothing. Suddenly, without a warning, we ended up biking on a highway at least three times during our time in Italy. This was especially dangerous when one of us got a flat tire in a highway tunnel, having to walk through it for at least a few hundred meters.


When we got to Milan, we boarded a train to Ventimiglia, which lies on the Ligurian Sea coast, in the very west of Italy, just a few kilometers away from the French border. On the train, we each got fined ten euros despite having bought our tickets in advance. Apparently, in Italy it is not enough to buy a train ticket, but one must also stamp it on the platform. If you forget to do this, you can be subject to a fine of up to fifty euros. I assume that this is how Italian Railways make most of their profits, given their otherwise relatively cheap prices. After this little problem, we arrived to Ventimiglia with a slight delay, at about 2a.m. After an hour of looking for a place to sleep, we finally found a nice building which stood on wooden columns right on the beach. There were even plastic deck-chairs which we used in order not to sleep in the sand. The problem was that since this was private property, we had to wake up at sunrise to not get caught. We found a shower on the beach - a welcome bonus.

That morning we took off early, going west toward Monaco. We crossed into France: some of us, myself included, for the first time. Because the sun was shining and the visibility was good, we could see Monaco's skyline from far away. Since the city-state is the world's most densely populated area as well as its richest country by GDP per capita, we hurried to be there as early as possible. Monaco's streets were truly crowded, and so were its roads; maybe even more than Tokyo's. Especially crowded was Monaco's historic center and the area around the Monte Carlo Casino. Interestingly, though, despite Monaco's crowds and lack of space, we found a beautiful beach there with almost no people on it. We were also pleasantly surprised about the prices: food in Monaco was no more expensive than in France or Italy.

A lonely beach in Monaco. Perhaps the only beach in Monaco, too?

That day we left Monaco at about 5p.m., and biked back east to Ventimiglia and finally to San Remo, a town located about twenty kilometers east of Ventimiglia. There was a nice bike trail (the only one we found in Italy) along which we found a coffee house in the process of being built. But, given that it was 9pm and no one was there, we decided to set up "camp" right on the coffee house terrace. We also found out that the terrace had a roll-off roof, which we unrolled using a tent pole, standing on each other's backs. That night we slept on a terrace under a roof; an unexpected luxury.

Rolling the roof under the cover of night.

The next day we woke up early and biked along the coast from San Remo to Genoa and past it. The interesting thing about biking along Italy's Ligurian Sea coast was that every five or ten kilometers, we arrived into a long town on the beach where we had to pass through bottlenecks caused by tourists who came to do nothing during their vacation. After leaving the town, we usually had to climb up a two to five kilometers long hill, and then descend it on the other side, arriving in a town no different from the previous one. In this sense, Genoa could be considered just another one of these crowded towns, though over 20km long, and with one large bottleneck all the way through it. Other than its old town, there did not seem to be many interesting things about Genoa. For us bikers, going through Genoa was equivalent to biking in a crowded garage because of all the exhaust gasses we had to inhale. It was a long day and by the end of it our speedometers showed over 170km. Despite the length, however, we were surprisingly not dead tired after arriving at sunset at a parking lot just off the road in Recco, our next "campsite."

A parking lot we slept at in Recco, Italy.

Though our sixth stage was shorter than the previous, it proved to be harder. The Ligurian Sea coast changed after Genoa: it became rockier, rougher, and much hillier. There were now 5-10 kilometer climbs, 5-10 kilometer descends, and no towns on the coast whatsoever where we could rest while waiting for the light to change. Our hope was to bike through Cinque Terre, a coastal national park consisting of five remote towns and the nature around them. We didn't know, however, that there would be no road leading through them, and thus the only way was to go around would be through a 700m high mountain pass. Given that it was raining, we decided to take a train from Sestri Levante to La Spezia, two cities on the edges of Cinque Terre.

Because it was no longer raining in La Spezia, we continued biking, arriving to Marina di Massa by sunset. We were desperately looking for a place to stay, but there was nothing to be found. All beaches were private or entry to them was strictly prohibited, and there were no hidden parks or fields where we could set up camp. We finally arrived at a church, where there was a party going on that evening. After explaining to the locals and then to the padre that we were pilgrims, traveling to from the Czech Republic to Vatican, we were allowed to take part in the party and then crash under one of the tents which were set up there. We got to eat a warm meal there, as well as to talk to three girls from Verona who were members of a camp organized by the Church. Glad that we got to eat something warm for the first time on our trip, we went to sleep slightly after midnight when the party was over.

The church party we crashed.

The morning after we continued to bike along the coast until we hit Pisa, where we saw the famous Leaning Tower. It was leaning indeed, in fact, probably more than any of us had expected. Though Pisa itself was a very small town, the area around the tower was crowded with people and with a large group of African men trying to sell us watches and such. Because entry into the tower cost fifteen euros, we decided against going. After all, it cost as much as three days of food for us! After a long lunch in front of a grey supermarket in Pisa, we left in the direction of Florence. Because the road no longer lead along the coast, we got immediately lost and it took us a while to find the right direction. After getting lost a few more times and a few disagreements about our direction, we arrived at a nice hill with an olive orchard, just west of Empoli, a town on the outskirts of Florence. There was a nice view of the surrounding landscape, and also bushes full of red wine and blackberries, and so we decided to call the place our home for the night.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The next day we got to Florence, with its beautiful old town. As usual, we divided into two groups: one group went out to take pictures, the other stayed with the bikes, and then we would switch. I joined the picture-taking group, and went out for about fifteen minutes. When we got back to the place where our bikes were, there was just one left. The local cops made the guys with the bikes move them away, apparently bicycle parking was not allowed in front of the bell tower in Florence. The cops came to us and one of them, a guy in his forties with a very strong Italian accent, told us that bike parking was not allowed. When I protested, saying that there was no sign saying against it, the policeman tilted his body toward me, put his face so close to mine that it looked as if he wanted to kiss me, and shouted in the strongest Italian accent I have ever heard: "Is the bell tower not enough!?" Though it was difficult not to laugh at him, I decided to stay quiet. Saying something was just not worth spending the afternoon at a police station full of guys as stupid as him. We left Florence in the afternoon, and continued northeast in the direction of San Marino. To be able to get to San Marino the next day, we had to get to the top of Paso del Muraglione, a 907m tall pass in the Apennines. When we got to the top after two hours of hard work, we were rewarded by a beautiful sunset over the mountains. Because it was getting dark, we had to find a place to sleep at the top. We found a hiking path with grass around it, and because we knew we wouldn't be able to find a better place, we stayed there. The stars were beautiful that night, and it was very cold. Some of us had to get up in the night in order to dress up warmer, but because a lot of dew fell as a result of the cold night and got us wet, this didn't help much.

On top of Paso del Muraglione.

In the morning, perhaps because the night was cold, we decided to get a coffee at a restaurant on top of the mountain. It was the first dose of caffeine we had in nine days. That day, our goal was to reach San Marino, third of the four micro states on our list. The first hundred kilometers were supposed to be easy: down the hill to Forli, and down the hill to Rimini, a harbor on the Adriatic Sea. They were easy, though it was extremely hot that day, and the wind kept on slowing us down. The heat made me feel a little sick and dehydrated, which made my climb up San Marino's 739m tall Monte Titano extremely difficult. I don't know how much longer it took me to climb the hill than the rest, but when I finally got to the top I was exhausted beyond words. I found everyone else's bikes tied to each other below the gates of the old town, and added mine to the rack. After grabbing a cold bottle of Peroni beer from the first shop I entered, I started walking the streets of San Marino's old town, looking for everyone else.

To be continued...


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