“Let ‘s bike”, she suggested.
“Wait a second, you do know that it is nearly 2,000 km”, I responded.
“Yes, but, if we get tired, we can just jump on a train or stop and rest for a few days”, she refuted.
We were headed from Switzerland to Greece to join an NGO working with refugees on the island of Lesvos. The refugee camp there had burned down and there was an urgent call for teachers in the new camp. Additionally, it was almost October and the cold northern winter was already threatening with snow falling on the Alps. Even in the best of weather conditions, I would not dare to take on the Alps. I had seen cyclists sweating up those steep and narrow mountain roads. We were not exactly spring chickens with both of us in our 60’s.
“Okay, but we take the train to Lugano and we cycle from there”, I said and it was settled. We had a few days to sort out our bikes and get some wet weather gear in preparation for the traditional wet weather that besieges Europe in the fall. We also had to be concerned and aware of the implications the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it in the countries along our journey.
Grand départ in Switzerland
Our intended route would take us from beautiful Lugano in Switzerland south on the EuroVelo 5 – Via Romea (Francigena) which is named after Archbishop, Sigaric the Serious, of Canterbury who walked the route from Rome to London in 990. We would pass through Milan and on to Pavia and then turn east down the Po River on the EuroVelo 8 – Mediterranean Route which runs all the way to Athens. Fortunately, we did not have a lot of time to fully consider the implications of our hasty decision and all too soon we were biking in the rain to the Basel SBB with seriously overloaded bikes to catch the ever-efficient Swiss train to distant Lugano through the impressive Gotthard tunnel.
Swapping the cold and wet of the North for the relative warmth south of the Alps, we cycled out of Lugano along spectacular lakes heading for Lake Como. Switzerland has wonderful cycle routes with mostly separated bike paths, so our last day biking in Switzerland was sweet and the kilometres fell away quickly.
Stormy welcome in Italy
Unbeknownst to us, we were cycling straight into storm Alex. It seems that the Mediterranean is subject to equinoxal storms, some of which develop into what are called Medicanes, which have hurricane strength. We saw the angry clouds building up and wondered how our new wet weather gear would hold up. All too soon we started coming across trees that had been blown down across our path and overflowing lakes that put the bike path under as much as 20 cm of water with angry streams roaring down the mountains around us. We pressed on heading for the shelter of the B&B that we had booked. We were fortunate to beat the serious rain into our little room, taking our bikes up into our bedroom. It was inexpensive accommodation and hardly anything worked, but it was dry and after a long hard day, we slept well.
We packed our bikes the next morning only to find that some of the debris that Alex had dumped on our path had punctured a tire. Our 10-year-old patch kit purchased for 99 cents somewhere in Canada proved to be up to the task and soon we were biking south to Milan.
Biking in Europe is wonderful because every few kilometres there is a little village which includes a village store, restaurant and bakery, making it unnecessary to carry much food. The people of Italy and Greece are also very friendly. When we paused at a spectacular fountain in the heart of Milan, an Italian man stopped and having recognized from our heavily laden bikes that we were tourists, he launched into a 20 minute passionate explanation of how much he loved his hometown, Milan. We also passed by the Milan Cathedral to remember the concert that Andrea Bocelli sang in front of it at the height of the first lockdown in Italy. He sang to an empty square but over 3 million people watched his concert online as he sang to honour the courage of the people of the city. I was encouraged to see that same square full of people enjoying the sunshine. Little did we know that the second wave of the pandemic was already washing in like an unseen tide and within days of leaving, Milan would be locked down again.
We pedalled south to Pavia on the mighty Po River. We were now following the EuroVelo 8 – Mediterranean Route. Many historical figures have travelled along the Po, including Hannibal, Caesar and Napoleon, and not least our friend Archbishop Sigeric the Serious. The Po is an impressive and powerful River, swollen as it was by storm Alex with some roads, bike paths and riverside parks inundated with flood water. Fortunately, along most of the Po there is an impressive four metres high dyke which is topped with a narrow road of dubious quality which is shared by pedestrians, cyclists, dogs, farm vehicles and a variety of cars and pickup trucks. Some drivers seemed to be graduates of the Ben Hurr driving academy.
Our second puncture treated us to a wonderful display of Italian helpfulness as cyclists and hikers gathered around our disabled bike with everyone having not only advice and opinions but also helping hands about the best solution to the problem. There was much gesticulation and some commiseration and even offers of patch kits, bike pumps and snacks. This puncture did, however, require more professional help and we ended up at the local bike shop where we were treated to an impressive display of Italian engineering skill with the wheel removed, repaired, and restored in just a few minutes. 1,000 km later it is still going strong. We have not had another puncture. I do not think any wheel would dare to leak having seen Italian bike mechanics at work.
Read here the second part of their journey.
Text and photos: Brian Roodnick