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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

Titian Drank Here

She was at least eighty. She was dressed in a coat and scarf even though it was over seventy degrees and the sun was out and glorious.  And she was ringing her bike bell at me because I was clogging the bike lane.Old men bike to the main square of Ferrara for their nightly gatheringI was trying to figure out where I was – as usual.  I was squinting down at my I-phone which I have mounted to my handlebars at the GPS app.  I was looking for those blue dots or purple lines that show designated bike lanes … I was trying to get myself out of the city on onto a loop ride west of Ferrara along the Po River.But I got moving when she belled me, and headed across the intersection hoping it was the right direction.After a week of navigating in and out of cities and point to point rides, I've got a good system.  Bless whoever invented GPS – it (and this app I’m using) have made a huge difference getting me in and out of these cities safely.  I am a reluctant adopter of new technology.  My theory is that I don't need to learn a new techie toy until I need to use it.   My first attempt to navigate into a city using a paper map alone without using route-planning GPS had me doing an emergency U turn to avoid being sucked into a tunnel on the autostrada followed by multiple dead-ends trying to navigate around train lines.  That motivated me to sufficiently to upgrade my technological expertise and master modern navigation.Ferrara is one of the most bike friendly cities I’ve ever visited.  It’s one of the reasons I came – the more I read the more interested I became.  Everyone here bikes.  Young.  Old. 

Don’t ask for Spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna …

Won't be parking MY bike here ... graffiti near Bologna's UniversityBecause it's tagliatelle not spaghetti and it's ragu not Bolognese sauce, thank you very much.Luckily I didn't make that mistake.  But the people of Bologna are justifiably proud of their city and want to make sure that you, too, understand that their city is special.And it is special.  It feels special.  Perhaps it's because Bologna was the center of learning for Europe for most of the middle ages and drew thinkers and students and radicals from around the continent to study here.  They left this city a legacy of thinking big and gave it a grounding in art and science that has influenced the culture and food and buildings and outlook.And if being a university town impacted it for the last 700 years, the modern university still shapes it today.Bologna is the oldest university in Europe.  Students from all over Europe flocked to study art and medicine and law and science.  Thinkers came here to practice their arts with the best.  And virtuosos came here to learn their craft.  Mozart studied music here, and flunked his admissions exam - getting admitted with the help of a professor who corrected his paper.Bologna "the Learned" infiltrated every aspect of the city - even the most conservative traditions in the church.  The central church includes a sundial in its floor, and it's here they figured out leap year and adjusted the Gregorian calendar.  The medical school anatomical theater - where they would dissect corpses to teach anatomy and cutting edge medicine of the time - was monitored by the watchful eyes of an Inquisition priest.  The university museums still host volumes of the earliest science in its stacks that were radical and challenging to the church in their day.Today wandering near the modern


"What did you steal!?"The woman with her hand in my bag immediately took two steps back and put her hands up to show they were empty.The begging and moaning were gone, replaced by a look of wary apprehension as I took another step toward her.  "What did you steal?" I asked again angrily looking her dead in the eye.The fake baby was dangling with its mouth still attached to her bare breast.  Her hands were up showing they were empty ... it was the left hand that was supposedly holding the baby that had been groping in my bag as she grabbed my arm with her right hand and pressed in close.I had been wandering the streets of Bologna in the university area - a great area for photos.  The bag was open because I kept grabbing my camera.This woman spotted me coming down the sidewalk and for whatever reason decided I was an easy mark.  I saw her and knew she was trouble ... but she came right for me begging.  I said "No" - "No" politely when she asked for money. Rather than walking away, she crowded in and grabbed my arm with her right hand. I backed away and said NO! NO!  loudly to attract attention.  They usually hate drawing broad attention and this is generally sufficient to back them off.  But not her. She stared me in the eye, her breast was bare with a realistic-looking baby attached to the nipple (quite effective at drawing your eye and attention as she intended).  The left hand that was presumably holding that baby was going for my bag, hidden by her shawl.I wrenched my arm out of hers, glanced down at my open bag and asked her loudly, "What did you steal?"  This got her attention and she

By the side of the Road

She looked so out of place on the side of the road. Olives and Vineyards and old towns ... but no Prostitutes hereon this tourist route in ChiantiBut then again, she had a padded chair and an umbrella for shade and she was sitting in an area that was safe from traffic.  At first I thought she must be selling something, but there were no items nearby.And then I learned what she was selling by the side of the road out in the country miles away from the city walls … she was a prostitute.Prostitution is legal in Italy.  Which surprised me since Italy is such a strong Catholic country.And due to a series of court rulings, prostitution is practiced not in the cities or homes or brothels but out on country roads.Country roads, of course, are where I have been spending a lot of time on my bike.There seem to be agreed-upon roads for prostitution – though the “red light” road designation is not showing up on my maps of course.  But clustering makes for easier shopping if you are taking advantage of these services.The first prostitutes I saw were outside the city walls of Lucca.  They were all African women – maybe Somali immigrants or possibly Nigerian women trafficked in with the sex trade.  They were all ages and sizes.  They were dressed in bright colors, but generally simply – a short skirt or leggings but generally without the revealing/blingy clothes one thinks of when you visualize a prostitute.  They sat under umbrellas to stay more comfortable from the sun.  Other times I saw African prostitutes gathering together to share lunch together.  These women always give a waive and friendly “Ciao” as I pass by and greet them.I have been told that most of these African women around Lucca

Fender Karma and other Cycling Truths

There are a few basic truths to cycling.One is that if you put fenders on your bike - which is a real time-consuming and frustrating pain - you can guarantee that it will not rain.This held true despite many threatening days in the first 2 weeks based out of Lucca.  But yesterday Fender Karma ran out and I barely made it through the drizzle to the hotel before the downpour set in.This morning I wasn't so lucky.  I woke up to sunny skies, and halfway to my destination was grumbling and grouching and considering turning around and going back to Parma as I stood in the mud under a tree by the side of the road as it poured. The weather has been very spring-like since I've been in Italy.  One day it's beautiful and warm and sunny and the next the temperature drops 20 degrees and it's rain.  But that's what happens when you travel in the shoulder season ... you get the benefit of fewer tourists and lower prices.  But you might also get wet.Despite today's rain I pressed on south towards the town of Langhirano - which is in the foothills of the Apennines mountains and the farming and culinary center of Parma's prosciutto.  Conveniently they have a Prosciutto museum there which meticulously takes you through numerous photos and videos of the history of Parma's ham starting from the Roman, with lots of dead pig visuals, and ending with modern production.  This is not a museum for the squeamish.Apparently this region is good for the ham (butt and hind leg of the pig) because of the natural attributions of the soil and water of the region.  North of Parma where the land is flat near San Segundo where I rode yesterday the terrior is favorable for the

Is Gluttony REALLY a Sin?

Gelato!The dark series of frescoes in the Duomo in San Gimignano was a warning to medieval Christians against the seven deadly sins.The fresco of the sin of Gluttony showed monstrous devils restraining overweight and agonized looking sinners from a table laden with food.Now I think I know what was in the middle of that tempting table.I'd bet it was a plate of Parma prosciutto with delicate puffy fried bread and a bottle of Lambrusco.Tonight I went to one of the best restaurants in Parma, which is in one of the best food regions in the world Emilia-Romagna.  I was not disappointed. In fact, I sat at my table at dinner tonight in such satiated bliss I was attracting the attention of the staff who kept looking at me like they were slightly amused.This dinner reminded me of my last visit to Italy with my friend Jenny and a dinner at a small restaurant named Pepe's in Syracusa in Sicily.  Pepe was a shiny-faced, pot-bellied, balding man in a dirty apron.  He came out to take our order, which basically meant he told us what we were having for dinner.  And Jenny swears by the end of dinner I was giving Pepe lascivious looks.  We later dubbed his restaurant Pepe's Palace of Pleasure.Proschiutto, Lambrusco and Torta FrittaI tried to go to this restaurant last night - Trattoria del Tribunale - but couldn't get in.  So tonight I was in line when the doors opened.  I had not eaten since breakfast and biked a good 30 miles to make sure I had a good appetite.  And while the bike ride was enjoyable - I found a beautiful trail by a river that wound past towns and fields and even a few future prosciutto farms - really I was biking to earn my

The Road to Parma

Parma is hopping.The young and beautiful and well-dressed lounge on the grass and stroll down the pedestrian streets lined with beautiful clothing stores and some familiar shops found in the nicer shopping centers in the US.This is see and be seen.  And no looking frumpy here.  Heels and little dresses and gorgeous boots and lots of accessories.   And everyone is out on a beautiful afternoon.  This is clearly a wealthy part of Italy.The bars and streets and cafes are packed.  There are long lines for gelato.  And these aren’t all tourists – they are locals enjoying their city and their day off for May Day.  I’m writing in a little bar before I find dinner with a glass of the local Parmesan white wine.  Despite the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the background, this is one of the quieter spots I found to write.I am here for the beginning of my solo traveling by bike.  I chose to start here in Parma because it’s the center of foodie Italy.  And its location is a great starting point to ease into a self-supported bike ride with a fully-loaded bicycle … manageable rides between cities and flat terrain in cycle-friendly territory.Everyone bikes here.  There are public bikes for rent.  Bikes are tied to every street corner and are lined up in rows outside buildings.  And bikes navigate the streets carrying the old and young and glamorous and business like and families with kids strapped on the back.  There are bike lanes and closed areas for only bikes and pedestrians.  And the city historical center is closed to cars … it makes an enormous tangible difference in the feel of the city.   This entire area has miles of bike trails and marked bike paths throughout the countryside.  I plan to go explore more

Packing and purging

Nothing like the realization that leg power has to propel you, the heavy bike and your stuff to help you purge clothes and gear liberally.  Because the stuff is the only thing that can be lightened.Cute skirt and shoes are out. Rinse and wear the same jersey and bike clothes. Tear out all surplus pages from the guidebooks.  No swimsuit, or mini tri-pod or extra pants.  Just the basics.Thanks to Julie for hauling purged stuff back to Seattle for me and to Tim and Lisa for taking the bike box back to Rome. The pile on the right is purged. The bike fully-loaded doesn't LOOK so bad ... That sucker is still too heavy for me to lift though which makes getting it on and off the train a challenge and a two-step process of taking off the panniers before getting the bike on the train.Luckily my bike - a Co-motion Pangea - seems to handle well with a load.  It's certainly much easier to pedal it than push and lift it.I'm off to Parma today by train. It's possible might ride all the way back to Rome from there. Unless something else interesting comes along.