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Bike and Tour and Eat … maybe not in that order

I’m not here long enough.

When you spread out the map and think of all the possibilities Italy suddenly seems huge.

Today is sufficiently rainy and cold and Seattle-like that I’ve finally started planning the rest of my trip.

I have a place to stay in Lucca till Saturday if I want.  Our crowd is starting to disperse Friday morning and dribble out to catch the flights back home.  At this point I think I may leave Lucca on Thursday and venture out on my own.

I’ve decided to start my travel alone by taking the train to Parma in Emilia-Romagna.  This is the heart of foodie Italy.  I am very excited.

My basic plan is to take the train to Parma (of Parmesan cheese fame) and stay for three days and bike around the area and tour and eat.  Then ride South East to Modena (of balsamic vinegar fame) and bike and tour and eat.  Then bike to Bologna (well, you get the biking/touring/eating theme), and then on to Ravenna, which is on the Adriatic coast and a town I’ve always wanted to visit.

After that I’m not sure … I’ll have at least another week before I have to be at the airport in Rome.  And inevitably interesting opportunities pop up along the way and you meet people who have suggestions or are good companions for detours.

Friends flying out Friday are generously taking my bike box with them to a hotel near the Rome airport and will store it there for me so I don’t have to come back to Lucca to pick it up and then spend another torturous day dragging the packed bike around on train.  At least, this is the plan … we still have to convince a near the airport in Rome to participate.

Doing all the research and hotel reservations makes me realize how much travel has changed since the last time I navigated Europe over a decade ago.  Now my I phone has an app where you type in a city and it pulls up hostels and lets you reserve with a click that makes a small deposit.  Then you click to find the map and you are done.

Before, finding a making a hotel reservation involved researching lists of hotels and depending on guidebooks.  Then you went to a tobacco shop and purchased a phone card.  Then you found a public pay phone and painstakingly figured out how to make a phone call (this was inevitably the hardest part of the entire process).  Calling hotels could mean up to an hour coming up with options before choosing and calling back to reserve to determine rates and availability – inevitably starting with the question ?do you speak English? and hoping you could communicate well enough get a reservation made for the right night and the right kind of room.

I used to budget out a lot of time in my travels for logistics.  The same with train travel – now I can check schedules online and buy a ticket from an automatic machine rather than going to the train station in person, standing in line at the ticket office, and buying a ticket which could involve an hour and significant angst.

This morning tech was in full force.  I found a site with bike routes in Emilia-Romagna I downloaded that includes GPS files for navigation.  I found several hotel options and have messages out about secure bike storage option if I book their hotel.  I found train schedules.  I found out that Parma is hosting a huge international food expo starting next week and there isn’t a hotel room available in the city after Sunday (which is why I’m leaving Lucca early). And it’s only noon.

I use my phone to navigate on bike rides, too.  I have an app called PocketEarth that lets me access detailed road maps using just the GPS on my phone so I can see where I am if I’m lost and check routes to navigate anywhere.  It even has an arrow showing me the direction I’m heading … which is very useful in these windy roads and mid-evil city centers.

The danger of all the technology is that it’s easy to keep you nose in your laptop or phone and miss out on what’s right in front of you.  Inevitably there are missed conversations.  Missed chances to learn from people you meet.  Missed joys of wandering lost to discover something around the corner when a map directs you precisely to a destination.

The phones and technology have changed how we travel … and how we live.  At home as I wait at a bar or restaurant for a companion I look around and everyone is face down in their smart phones.  Bars used to be social place – now everyone silos into their own little world thumbing away … acceptably protected from encounters with the world around them.

I think all these travel crutches are a mixed blessing.  Yes it’s easier.  But is it better?

As I think back about all the travel I’ve done in the past, many of the best stories that I remember are around the very encounters the technology circumvents.  Wandering into a cluttered tobacco shop and greeting the owner – and the student practicing English.  Figuring out the telephones – perhaps with the help of a kind passerby who sees you scratching your head and struggling.  Getting on the wrong train, off at the wrong station, and having someone walk you across town to the bus stop to make sure you can find your way back where you need to go.

No app needed.  And no app creates the opportunity for kindness and a good story to tell like a smile and a greeting and a bit of the unknown.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA

2 thoughts on “Bike and Tour and Eat … maybe not in that order

  1. Thanks, Anne! It's funny how when I'm at home in my routines – going and doing and running around – I never seem to allow myself to think about things the same as when I'm traveling. Makes you realize how much we crutch on the familiar to get through our daily lives.

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