On July 31st at 0745 I cycled down the gravel road from where I'd lived in the village of Montecchio Precalcino and headed southwest to get to Paris, then Syria. If this doesn't make sense, keep in mind I'd walked from Portugal to Morocco a year and a half earlier to get to Egypt via Europe. Anyway, down the hill I went with one of my new 'Cycling to Syria' t-shirts on and a red and white keffiyeh on my head, saddened at leaving my surrogate family behind, exhilarated to be on the long road again, anxious for the same reason, and a little annoyed that my odometer wasn't working after all the preparation I'd done. At the bottom of the hill I turned right onto the asphalt towards my first hosts waiting 120 kilometers away, and with the adrenalin of a new journey I pedalled along at 20k/hr until realizing I'd better slow down a little if I was ever going to reach my final destination.
In Montecchio Precalcino, my friend and host Sabina had tried to drum up a little publicity for the start. I'm not big on publicity; during my walk to Egypt I had let publicity find me and not the other way around. But this time I was cycling to raise money for a cause, for two NGO's, International Rescue Committee and Polish Humanitarian Action. Without publicity there would be no one to donate to these organizations. But the media wasn't interested, so the starting ceremony was composed of the four members of the family that had taken me in and cared for me the previous three weeks while I earned a little money working on an organic farm. We'd said our goodbyes quietly, everyone was a little sleepy, and they'd stretched out a green ribbon in front of Knulp, my bike. I'd cut the ribbon, and Sabina had handed me half of it to keep. I tied it around Knulp's head tube, and off I went.
For the next couple of days I pushed hard, not so much because I wanted to, but because I had to to reach my hosts. I stayed near Mantova the first night, with Francesca, Gian Carlo and Nico at an old rustic farmhouse. It was a good ending for a hard first day on the road. We talked about everything and drank Gian Carlo's Lambrusco. I'm sure I've acquired yet another surrogate family with these guys. Francesca gave me a wonderful gift, a wish balloon, just like the one I'd seen in the desert in Sinai only a few months earlier. The wind caught it and it sped westward into the night, until it looked like a distant, flickering star. So my trip westward was assured, anyway. Gian Carlo gave me a bottle of homemade Lambrusco, and he was worried about the extra weight I'd have to carry.
"A bottle of your Lambrusco is weightless," I'd said, or something to that effect. By the time I'd left Milan it really was weightless.
The next day I cycled 147 k to reach a host who was farther than I'd thought. Thirty plus kilometers farther. I was glad no one was cycling with me because they wouldn't have been pleased with my inattention to certain details, like where exactly the destination was. I arrived at 10 pm exhausted. I was fed well and immediately went to bed. The next morning I was off to Milan.
In Milan I did some house sitting for my friend Cristina, and some cat sitting, but her father, Renzo, came twice a day to cook for the both of us, so I'm not so sure I was really house sitting. Renzo helped me make Gian Carlo's Lambrusco bottle weightless. I also visited my friend Sara a few times. We'll meet again in Belgrade or Istanbul or someplace without even trying, I'm sure of that. I'm pretty sure we've met a few times in previous lives, if there are previous lives.
In Como, Italy I was invited to stay at a university dorm full of Chinese students by Qin. She made me a nice Chinese meal, unlike any meal I ever had at a Chinese restaurant.
In Switzerland I'd already paid for a few things with euros before I realized Swiss Francs are used in this non-EU nation. I just cycle on without a clue sometimes. I stayed in Lugano with Barbara, and as far as I was concerned I was still in the north of Italy as we ate loads of pasta and drank a little (ahem) wine. Just more of Italy but with a different currency, Swiss Francs.
After Lugano the mountains began , the real mountains, and by the end of a hard day I was camped by a river near Airolo and San Gottardo Pass, where I was stuck for a couple of soggy and somewhat anxious days in thunderstorms, as related in my previous post. I got through San Gottardo Pass, the highest point I would be in the Swiss Alps, and for the next two nights, as I headed towards Basel, I camped at paid campsites, there being no abandoned houses or discreet wilderness campsites in view. At both campsites I met people who are now friends, the first being a Dutch trekking cyclist named Casper who lives in Switzerland, the second a German woman named Julia who's got a Moto Gucci she travels on.
Then finally, Basel, where I stayed with high altitude hiking host Beatrice, and for the first night there, also with two travelling musicians from Germany and Sweden. With Beatrice I would get the opportunity to float down the Rhine River, through Basel, clutching my 'fish bag', a waterproof bag which serves as a container for your clothes and a float. It seems to be the thing to do in Basel in the summertime, as we were not alone. Beatrice gave me a tour of old Basel, which to me looked like a reproduction of something I'd seen in Disney World, somewhere in the Epcot Center maybe.
Switzerland is a bit of a paradise if you have a lot of money, or even if you haven't, if you've got people to host you. Everything seems... perfect. Cyclists have their own lanes, not only in the cities but also on big roads. There are roadsigns for cyclists. Motorists respect your space. And cyclists follow the rules. They stop at stop lights, stay on the bike paths. Having been trained on the streets of Milan, I was a bit of a renegade as I hopped from sidewalk to road to bikepath, cycling through red lights and down one way streets. People stared.
Yes, so, old Basel, like a Disneyland street reproducing old Basel. Or like a movie set reproducing old Basel. That's how perfect Basel seemed. Beatrice seemed almost offended by my referring to Basel as perfect.
"Zurich is far more perfect," she said.
She also pointed out the slightly less than perfect nature of her neighborhood, which is an immigrant neighborhood.
"Look at the rubbish," she said. But I noticed all the rubbish that had been put out was in perfect, blue, official Basel rubbish bags. No rubbish on the streets.
I tried hard to look for imperfections in Basel. While watching a concert along the Rhine I did notice a beer bottle floating by. Aha!
The night before heading into France I showed Beatrice my photos of San Gottardo Pass to impress her. She showed me photos of herself high atop even higher parts of the Alps, looking down from the peaks instead of up at them. Also photos of the Andes and other far more impressive places. Never try to impress the Swiss with your photos of mountains.
In France the bike paths and lanes stopped and I was once again being squeezed by big trucks onto the margins of the road.
I camped for the next two nights in farmer's fields, then cycled to my next host in Langres, a beautiful and interesting walled, hilltop town which I cursed at first, as I pushed my bike up the steep hill it was perched on.
I went to the tourist office first to meet my host's flatmate. Robin pulled out a map of Langres and circled the points I needed to know to navigate the two hundred meters to the house.
"Benjamin is waiting for you," he said.
I navigated the 200 meters successfully and Benjamin, my host, was indeed waiting. The house where he lives is built like a castle, and I had to push through two heavy doors to get into the courtyard. The house is shared by three families, but Benjamin's part of it is spacious, and on two floors. I settled in, had a shower, then got to see his studio, where Benjamin does his sculpting. There were statues and busts along one wall that he had sculpted, statues of soldiers from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and of fantasy figures, and medieval scenes. What was most interesting was that many of these figures were tiny; as big as your fingernail, but sculpted in fine detail. What talent! What finesse! Where I to try this the clay would end up in a little ball, flicked away into a corner.
Though Benjamin's studio is a bit like an artist's garret, he is by no means starving, as he sells these figures online for a price.
For the next couple of days Benjamin and his flatmate, Robin, treated me like a special guest and gave me a tour of the town, which boasts the longest fortress wall in France, and a trip to the countryside to visit the ruins of a Roman estate while having a French picnic. We also played an absurd game of antiquity while at this Roman estate, in which one has to throw a wooden disk onto a gravel filled triangle for points. As I couldn't get the disks to stick to the gravel, the game is absurd.
After Langres, I enjoyed the two most pleasant days of cycling I've had so far, along the banks of the Marne River Canal, often in the wilderness, or passing through tiny villages, and the path absolutely flat with few other cyclists. I stayed in Chaumont at the invitation of a med student from Catalunya, who invited me to an evening French BBQ at an old abbey. Then two more nights camping wild, once in the woods along the Marne, and once in a farmer's field before reaching Reims.
I'm staying in Reims, the city of the coronation of French kings, with my current host, Caroline. Cycle-buddy -to-be Brad is still in Paris, which I avoided as I had no host there (though I've been invited by two people since making that decision not to stay there). Brad and I will meet in the near future, I think, perhaps in Bavaria. Meanwhile I'm heading further away from Syria by cycling towards Belgium; Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. I'll be looking for more work, any work, picking grapes, shoveling manure, anything to help me get on with my mission, which is this:
to raise money for the victims of the war in Syria.
Most of the population there has been displaced. They are homeless and without the basic necessities. If you would like to help these people, you can donate just ten or twenty dollars/euros to:
http://diy.rescue.org/cycling-syria which will go to International Rescue Committee, or to:
http://www.pah.org.pl/wspieraj-nas/182 which will go to Polish Humanitarian Action. PAH regularly works inside Syria in the most dangerous areas to get goods and medical help to those caught in the middle of a sectarian war.
So please help. Merci!