Before we begin, each post has an author, visible above. Although travelling together, our experiences, impressions and emotions are unique and independent of one another, and we hope to reflect this in our blog.
After spending so much time cycling through Italy, it earned two blog posts to fit it all in. We chose to pass through Sardinia, Sicily and Calabria to try and escape winter.
It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around the idea of wild camping (pitching the tent anywhere that isn’t a paid camp site/camping ground, whether it be legal or not).
It might sound picturesque, spending the night in a secluded corner of nature under the stars, no neighbours, no power, and all for free. But worries of being robbed, being attacked by bad people or dogs or getting in trouble from the authorities/land owners always seem to creep into my mind as the sun goes down.
After paying 25 Euro at Lake Garda to stay one night in a camp site that didn’t even provide toilet paper, we decided that was the end of paid camping.
We left Andreas and Martas house and headed for the coast, with the hope that nobody would be on the beaches in the middle of winter. And we were right, spending the first night underneath a beach kiosk, with only the fishermen out. People keep questioning us “Why the hell are you cycle touring through Europe in the middle of winter?”, and this is exactly why. The roads are quiet and we have the beaches to ourselves. And because socially and professionally it felt right.
Sardinia’s wild camping locations included deserted beaches, overgrown picnic areas, WWII bunkers, underneath and beside empty beach kiosks and the end of harbour wharfs. Our normal morning is to pack up camp at sun rise, enjoy our porridge and hit the road.
Despite Joey’s constant reassurance that nobody cares if we’re camping here and nobody is out to get us, I still get a little anxious. You never really fall into that deep, deep sleep, becoming hyper aware of all the sounds and lights. No footstep, rustle, car, dog or torch goes unnoticed. But it’s getting easier as we go along. Once you realise that most people don’t give a damn, and the vast majority don’t want to cause you any harm, you understand that anybody out after dark is either fishing, hunting, getting it on, getting on it or doing something else minding their own business.
My all time favourite stretch of road so far was the SS125 along the East coast of Sardinia, between Cala Gonone and Tortoli. We wild camped at Cala Gonone, our tent so close to the crashing waves that I had nightmares of us drowning during the night and being trapped in the tent underwater. There were earth quakes and we had serious concerns about the possibility of a tsunami. Luckily, we survived the night to cycle 80km of sunshine, mountains, canyons, winding galleries with smooth roads and the perfect balance of climb and descent.
We arrived in Tortoli exhausted but excited to meet Maurizio, our Couchsurfing host. We spent three rejuvenating nights with Maurie, generously offering us one of his bnb guest rooms and the opportunity to give our bikes some much needed love and attention, whilst teaching us the art of food presentation and appreciation. He really made it hard to leave, and every meal we had had since we try to make as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
We continued at a leisurely pace down to Cagliari to catch our ferry. It was a shock to the system to be back in city traffic after a beautifully peaceful two weeks through Sardinia.
As we were waiting to board the ferry, Farnaz and Mehdi, an Iranian couple rode up beside us. It’s always exciting crossing paths with fellow cycle tourists, easy to spot on the road with their heavily laden touring rigs. These two had been living in Germany for the past few years and had taken some time off work to go cycling and adventuring. Everyone slept through the ferry journey, but we departed the boat and rode into Palermo as a group of four.
We found the most picturesque historic square, Piazza Pretoria, to make some breakfast and coffee. As always, locals gave us some strange looks sitting on the stair case looking at Fontana Pretoria with a camp stove and four loaded bikes. We planned to stay for 4 nights in Palermo over Christmas to have a little rest.
We decked the bikes in tinsel and fairy lights to suffice as our makeshift Christmas tree. Christmas morning we spent with our London landlord, Luciano. A man of the world, he grew up in Sicily but worked overseas and now is in the midst of launching a foundation which funds research into curing incurable diseases.
He picked us up and took us for ice cream and coffee by the seaside. In the afternoon we cooked up an Italian/Australian Christmas lunch and were joined by Farnaz and Mehdi, who helped distract us from the homesickness. It was my fourth Christmas spent overseas, away from family. My goal is still to cycle back home before Christmas 2019!
We wild camped our way across Sicily, spending nights at the end of habour wharfs, on beaches and underneath wind turbines. When Mount Etna started erupting, of course we made the detour to catch a glimpse of the smouldering volcano, spending a day climbing up from sea level into the fog.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect though, we popped out of the fog right on dusk and laid our eyes on the epic Etna, the smoke and ash backlit by the setting sun. The first active volcano I’ve ever seen. We found a secluded camp spot underneath one of the many wind turbines on top of the hill, and continued to watch as Etna was framed by stars. We woke up to the tent covered in ice, but the view made it all worth it.
One thing I’ll miss the most about Italy is the abundance of orange and lemon trees. We may or may not have gifted ourselves with a few plump citrus fruits growing beside the road, one of us always keeping watch for an angry farmer or protective guard dog. There was a few close calls. Probably karma when the oranges were only 40 cents a kilo.
After catching yet another ferry back to the Italian mainland, we were pretty shocked and disgusted by the amount of rubbish lining the roadside in Calabria. Everything from diapers to plastic waterbottles, dead cats and dogs. One of the most haunting images and one that I will never forget, was a couple of adorable puppies on the side of the road covered in blood, eating the remains of one of their puppy siblings hit by a car.
My fear of dogs was born in Italy, and I normally adore dogs. For some reason, the sight of spinning wheels turns the friendliest dog into a rabid werewolf. After initial terrifying dog chases, Joey armed himself with a bamboo stick to swipe at any furry felons that got too close. We named it the “dog whacker”, but it also doubled as a bike stand.
Packs of shepherd dogs chased us down daily. It’s risky business, one time forced onto the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. In the moment you think the fear will power you with enough speed to escape, but damn they’re fast! So unless you’re facing a big downhill, apparently the best thing to do is stop, get off your bike, and pretend to throw things at them whilst being as big as possible.
I’ve also tried growling back, snowing my teeth and shooting some daggers with my eyes. Mostly we just hope the shepherd is close enough to call off the attack. Happy to announce, we are yet to be bitten (touch wood), my pannier the only victim who took one for the team. Nevertheless we got all our rabies shots before leaving, just in case.
One particularly disorganised evening, it was already dark and we were still trying to decide where to spent the night. Wild camp or try and book some accommodation. We stopped at a petrol station to fill the cooker. A friendly man approached us and asked in english if we needed any help. We explained we were trying to find somewhere to camp for the night. He didn’t know of any camp sites but called up a friend who owned a bnb nearby. Unfortunately out of our price range, he suggested we might be able to pitch our tent in his yard, he just had to check with his house mate. As he was putting his number in Joeys phone, another man in a car pulled up beside us. He spoke no english but the first helpful man explained that this new-comer was offering that we could camp in his yard. We shrugged and said why not, no better offers yet right?
We start following this man in his car, about 7km down hill. He was driving erratically, had his hazard lights on and would stop and start where he pleased, regardless of the traffic around him. Eventually, his car pulled into a drive way, through a large open gate. He jumped out of his car and frantically starts pointing and shouting to the backyard where we could camp and shows us the water tap. Then he starts shouting “Documents! Passports!”. Cautious of handing out passports over to a stranger, we pretended not to understand. He then leads us inside, when we notice he is wearing filthy rubber gloves, smells distinctly of faeces and has a wall of keys behind him.
He shows us old passports he has photocopied, and is implying that we do the same, while also demanding that we pay him. At this point, Joey and I share a look that says “lets get the fuck out of here”, make a polite exit saying we are poor and can’t pay for camping, and then cycle super fast to make our escape. All that was running through my head was that he was going to lock us in his house and who knows what else, which on reflection was probably an over reaction. But it was dark, nobody knew we were there, he was demanding our passports, had a large gate, gloves on, and smelled like poo. Can you blame me for being a little rattled?
We cycled in the dark to Gioia Tauro, a largish port town with sketchy vibes and a sketchier history. We had planned on camping on the beach, but I was feeling so unsafe and shaken up. At around 11pm we bailed and found a last minute air bnb, sleeping in comfort and safety behind a locked door. A few days after we met a police detective, who explained to us that Gioia Tauro was one of the biggest ports in Europe, allegedly used by the Mafia to import most of Europes drugs. He thought we may have felt unwelcome vibes from the town as the locals may have thought we were undercover police, investigating the mafia.
It was a strange New Years Eve. Despite our desperate messages to couch surfing and warm showers hosts, nobody wanted to party with us. Disorganisation and lack of wild camp locations left us trying to book an air bnb at 6pm new years eve. We ended up in a small seaside town Scilla, the traditional site of Scylla, a sea monster from Greek mythology. Turns out the heating and hot water both didn’t work in our little flat. Friendless, cold, and homesick, we spent New Years Eve with each other for company as usual, watching the fire works stretching East and West along the Italian coast.
The final night in Italy was spent camped inside an abandoned farmers cottage in the middle of an olive grove. Thinking back on it now, it had strong Blair Witch Project vibes. A host later explained that many of the old cottages were left decrepit and crumbling, people refusing to knock them down or renovate as the locals believed they were haunted by spirits from wars of the past.
Honestly, aside from the kind people we met and fresh oranges we were gifted by the trees every day, the boot of Italy didn’t make for pleasant cycling. Legends like Simone, who in his teens emigrated from Italy to Ireland, and recently returned to open a language school to afford others opportunities he had through language – meeting him alone made the boot worthwhile.
After eating a life time supply of pasta, and never enough gelato, we were ready to move on to the next country, where we outstayed our visa… Greece.