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Climbing Mountains

“Impossible!”I’ve told the two gentleman next to me at dinner about my plans to go to Brisighella and then from there to cross the Apennines on the old Roman road.  I’m seated next to two businessmen travelling to Ravenna for work, one from Florence and one from Genoa who both have good English.Mr. Florence sits back, and with a dramatic hand gesture says, “That’s impossible!”  Mr. Genoa says, “How do you know she doesn’t bike 300 Kilometers a day and that it’s not possible for her. “  He turns to me and says, “You send him a picture from the top.”I explain that there is a train that runs parallel to the route so if I need to catch the train I have a backup.  But as much as I appreciate Mr. Genoa sticking up for me, it’s Mr. Florence’s “Impossible!” that has just implanted itself in my head.I’d been looking for a good route back towards Rome over the Apennines.  I’d found other potential routes, but none I felt comfortable attempting.  I wanted a bail-out plan in case something went wrong – with the bike or with my stamina or with my leg strength as I hauled a fully-loaded touring bike through the mountains.  Or if I felt I might be at risk for a lymphedema flare-up and needed to stop.  I’d met a couple of Americans in Comacchio the day before who were taking a self-guided bike tour.  We swapped travel info – I told them about the Cinque Terra trails being closed and the offline GPS navigation apps.  They showed me this route over the mountains between Faenza and Florence.  The climb seemed doable but long – only getting steep near the pass, and there was a train that followed the route offering several opportunities to bail

Pink Jersey

Massed at the starting line for Stage 9 with team cars lined up to followI held my prime ground as the crowd filled in around me.I had biked to Lugo - the start of the 9th stage of the Giro d'Italia.  I had a great view of the cyclists coming in and the mass for the start.  The team cars with bikes on the top.  And the endless entertainment of the crowd who had turned out to support their favorites.Pink - the color of the leading jersey - was the color of the day.  Kids were dressed head to toe in giro pink swag.  The dogs wore pink t-shirts.  The stores had pink balloons and decorations.  And thousands of people turned out to send off the cyclists on the biggest race of the  year in this cycling-mad country.Ivan Basso - famous pro cyclist from Italy is racing here and drew big cheers, as did other Italian favorites.  And Cadel Williams - the current leader wearing the coveted pink jersey drew cheers and applause as he rode through the crowds pressed on either side of narrow corridor cyclists passed through on the way to the start.Giro FanThey love their cyclists  in Italy.  I've seen bike trails with plaques dedicated to their racing champions.  Every weekend I see pelotons of cyclists on beautiful road bikes in bright kits blasting around in focused pacelines. Many cyclists give a hearty Ciou as they fly by like the hare passing the tortoise as I plod along on my touring bike loaded down with panniers and give them a friendly Ciou and a wave back.The country around Brisighella is made for the beautiful light carbon climbing machines that zip up the hills.  While I can get up them on my touring bike, it's a lot of

Off the Beaten Path

In front of the home of the first Ceramic's Artist Pirota"How did you hear about Brisighella"?Claudio has asked me this after taking me to his farm where he produces wines - we are tasting some of the wine under his label.I've been asked this several times since rolling into town yesterday.  I think being American surprises people - they don't get Americans here very often.  There are not very many visitors here ... period.And this is a beautiful town that would love to have the attention and publicity - and tourist income - of Tuscany.  It actually looks a lot like Tuscany and is only 20km east of the boundary, and has the rolling hills and vineyards and olive groves and medieval towns.  But they also have fields of peaches and apricots and kiwis.  It has castles and history.  It has national parks with hiking and mountain biking and rolling roads that are an athlete's dream. I'm in one of the true culinary centers of the world.  Incredible food, in a town with the slow pace of generations, still waiting to be discovered and wondering why the rest of the world doesn't know about them.Modern ceramic decorating the side of a buildingBut I'm selfishly glad to have this beautiful place without the herds.  In fact I like this town so much I changed all my plans and am staying put till I have to get to Rome to catch my flight.Today the very friendly hotel arranged for a local wine grape grower to pick me up and take me to his farm. Claudio drove me to a beautiful farm that was also the home of the first ceramics artist in the area - and the ceramics of nearby Faenza are world famous.  The remnants of the home of Pirota still


Biding Time in RavennaThe older man sitting next to me at dinner reached over and took my fork.  He speared ravioli off his plate and handed it to me with a big grin. I was seated at a long table next to a very sweet older couple who were here in Ravenna for dinner – they owned a pensione on the lido (beach) nearby.  We had managed some basic communication, and I was pondering the menu.   As usual I couldn’t make up my mind – I asked them what they were having and if they liked it.So he pointed to the menu what he had ordered and gave me a taste.  The wife took the fork and gave me a taste of her calamari with asparagus on pasta, too.  Both delicious.  And made more special than the taste was the kindness of these two people who embraced a stranger.It’s encounters like these that make travel special.  More than any art or sites or epic bike rides.  It’s connecting with people along the way that I remember the most.  And for whatever reason, the last few days in Ravenna – and now in the small medieval town of Brisighella - I’m finding these experiences are just coming one after another.  My second night in Ravenna the older man next to me at dinner was shocked I was cycling solo through Italy.  He was telling all the waiters and people around “She’s cycling alone through Italy” very loudly and trying to ask me questions in rapid-fire Italian I had no way of understanding.  It was a bit embarrassing, until he tried to feed me his potatoes because when saw what I ordered for dinner he decided I wasn’t eating enough. And when he saw my Brazino (bass cooked in salt – incredibly


I reluctantly listed the days left between now and when I fly out on a sheet of hotel stationary.  Time to figure out how to get back to Rome and make my flight. Suddenly there is more to do than I can possibly fit in.  I have to pick.  Of course there are no bad choices. The business of figuring out how to get myself back to Rome took the better part of the afternoon.  In between emails, I would head out and spend a couple of hours with my head craned back taking in Ravenna’s incredible 5thcentury mosaics that light up the churches in the city. Section of Mosaic in Basilica d'Sant Apollinare, Ravenna This early Christian art is all about light.  The faces on familiar saints and icons are somehow more compelling and human than the dark medieval paintings, even though they are made of stone.  This is the incredible time in history where the Greeks and the Romans and Byzantium collide … and they met here in Ravenna. Yet the city Ravenna wears this legacy very casually – the mosaics are hidden in churches that are plain brick on the outside tucked into a very business-like and calm city.  I confess I don't find the city itself very compelling, though I'm glad to be here to see what they offer to the world no other city can match. Near the end of a long trip my thoughts always drift to home.  Today I read the local news for the first time in a month.  I scanned facebook for news.  It occurred to me to check my bank account to make sure the bills were paid.  I look on all the lost pet sites for the first time in weeks just in case – by some miracle – my lost dog turned up somewhere

Wetlands and beautiful riding

 The ride south from Comacchio - a canal town that sits on the edge of a large, brackish lagoon - to Ravenna was relatively easy.  Cycling south around the edge of the lagoon and across cyclepaths built on dikes between the lagoons and canals was a great way to see the wildlife up close.  There were remnants of abondoned and flooded out brick buildings that the brackish water had reclaimed over the centuries standing partially submerged in the mud.  And it was full of birds - feeding on fish and water creatures and insects, - including a huge flock of resident flamingos.Sadly the flamingos did not cooperate to come close enough to pose, but here are some other photos of this gorgeous area.Comacchio, Italy canalsFishing shacks with large nets lined the lagoonRiding several miles across a narrow dike between a canal and the lagoon made for slow going and required dodging thistles and eating a few bugs but was incredibly beautiful

Photos: Ferrara Palio Ancient Flags Competition

Mamma Mia!This outburst came from the San Luca supporter sporting a green and red scarf standing beside me as he watch the team from San Giacomo throw their flags 20 feet in the air and flawless catch and move in a complex dance. He - and everyone in the San Luca section knew their contrade had just lost the ancient flag throwing competition of Ferrara's Palio.The San Giacomo team knew they had rocked it and jumped and did the equivalent of the superbowl football spike on the way out of the Piazza.  The judges frowned ... they had already chastised a contrada cheering section for being too contentious in cheering on their house. The Ferrara Palio Ancient Flag Competition brought hundreds of young people together in their colorful medieval costumes to play music and compete - like they done for hundreds of years. I ended up standing among the red and green clad San Luca Contrada.  They were gracious enough to tolerate the outsider, though I made sure to clap extra loud for their teams.  All eight contrada's organized themselves into sections surrounding the piazza and cheered on their neighborhood and hung colorful banners and wore the colors of their house.And the competition is fierce.  When a flag is dropped the whole crowd gasps.  When a team does well, or when they falter, everyone cheers to acknowledge their good job or to support them for trying.  And when a contrada's team enters the piazza to perform, their friends and neighbors cheer loudly and support their team.(The previous post "Serendipity" explains the Palio).  Here are some photos from that night ... I have a new appreciate for sports photographers after trying to get some good photos at night, with fast movement while dodging the big hair of the woman in front


Unloading mesh bags of musselsThe fishermen looked tired.  Of course they had probably been up most of the night and were still unloading their catch mid-morning.I’m on a small boardwalk that lines the canal leading to the Adriatic in Porto Garibaldi - a town on the Adriatic coast.  I’m spending my day exploring the lido’s (beaches) and up the coast from Comacchio.  I’m pretty sure I've already happened upon the most interesting thing I’ll see all day and I’m only 5 km into my route.  One boat has mussels in large mesh bags.  They are being loaded onto a conveyor belt to get them off the boat and onto the dock and then unloaded - stacked neatly like cord wood – onto wooden pallets.  These mussels were most likely sold on the dock at auction just after dawn when the boat rolled in from a night of fishing.  They will go into a refrigerated truck to be shipped out to grace pastas around Italy.Another boat has fish where the catch is being packed down in ice onto pallets in Styrofoam containers.  Refrigerated trucks are waiting to haul the fish away.Another had what looks like sardines.Packing fishA woman on a small boat is direct selling to customers.  She uses a hand scale that looks like it could be from the last century to demonstrate the weight of the fish.  Then she guts each fish and weighs it again.  I think the couple agrees to pay for the price without guts along with other seafood they carry out.I saw exactly what went into last night's dinner being unloaded onto those docks.  Mostly bottom feeding sea life from the fertile salt marshes – heads, bones and all. But combined they made for a wonderful Zuppe de Pesche (Cioppino).It’s a market that’s been happening for centuries. 

No Limits

Bike trail covered in white cotton fluffy seeds - by the Po River I’m settling into a groove now.   And have started reaping the benefits of traveling by bike and doing it self-supported and free. Free is the operative word.  And I value my freedom and independence above almost everything else. While I've ridden organized and supported bike trips across America, in Vietnam and through India, this is the first self-supported effort.  And something tells me it will be hard to go back. An organized bike trip means you have to be somewhere specific by the end of the day.  You ride with the benefit of an organization at your back– someone carries your stuff and you have a place to sleep and something to eat and a nice map and marked route that is planned and someone to call if something goes wrong.  They will look for you if you don’t show up at the end of the day.  They will get you to a doctor if you are hurt.  They are security. With a group cycle tour you ride with a group of strangers who you meet over dinner when everyone is tired and anxious and ready to do this trip planned for months.  You often have nothing in common with these people but a desire to bike the same route.   Which can be good – good company and a nice pace line and people with you if there is trouble.  Or bad – it’s hard to carve out personal time in a group, there is always at least one person who is difficult, and ultimately a group ride is only as strong as the collective abilities. I was thinking about the differences today as I road through the beautiful Po river delta from Ferrara to Comacchio.  From a city I’d never heard of


“Is this for the Palio?” The drums and trumpets blared a regimented urgent rhythm that was reminiscent of a military march.  Earnest young men in street clothes held large silk flags with bright colors for each contrade (family house) in the city of Ferrara. Young men - and a few women – were lunging and marching and throwing these flags in intricately choreographed routines.  This was practice night … tomorrow night the costumed competitions begin. They are putting their best in front of the crowd and dignitaries watching from the seats of honor – a little preliminary buzz and intimidation of the watching competition.   One young man juggles five flags at once – the silk flying up against the lights from the palace courtyard.  Tomorrow night these teams will be out of the sweat pants and shorts and into elaborate costumes for the real show … and I plan to be there early to get a good spot. The man next to me is excited and intent on the action.  He says yes, this is the Palio, and a conversation ensues that is a friendly mix of his Italian/little English meets my Spanish/bad Italian/English.  But it worked. I had stumbled upon the oldest Palio in the world and just happened to be here on one of the biggest weekends of the festival.  And I did not even know it existed – much less that these competitions were happening – until I followed my ears into the square. Ferrara’s Palio started in the 1200’s and has been held every year since (barring a few interruptions for war and natural disaster in the 1800s).  It’s an entire month of celebrations that pit the eight great houses and surrounding neighborhoods of Ferrara against each other in friendly competitions that end with a boy's foot race, a girls foot race, a