Nearly two weeks ago already, I returned from (another) bike tour with my two-wheeled companion, Penny. Bike tours always consist largely of planning, eating and pedaling. And pedaling is always coupled with plentiful time to think. For some reason, I kept hearing my Polish roommate Olga saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” On day one, as I turned up valley past Forli — Faenza’s larger neighbor — the wind changed direction. It was just enough to turn my attention to her statement (and to what I might eat for lunch, and before that, a snack). The hot sun leaned in, eager to encroach on my thoughts…
But first let me lay out the tour in all its glorious stages. I had nine days while my language school in Bologna was closed… and I had a bike, gear and a wish: I wanted to tour. A few days later, at a BBQ, I mentioned this off-handedly and my friend Betta said she’d planned a route, did I want it? Be careful what I wish for, indeed!
Of course, things went a bit like this:
- The Original Plan: Sylva and Penny ride from Faenza, Italy to Pescara, Italy
- The Changing Plan: Sylva and Penny ride from Faenza, Italy to Umbertide, Italy where the weather changes and so does the plan…
- The New General Plan:
Day One: Faenza, Italy — Poggio alla Lastra, Italy (80 km, 50 miles)In Poggio alla Lastra, I stayed at an agriturismo (translated as a farm stay — usually an awesome spot for good food and somewhere to sleep). I put up a tent, but before I turned in I was invited to join a table of 18 good friends from Forlì. But first, I had to get there — and that included a peaceful, scenic lunch break under the castello in Cusercoli…On the way up, I let my wishful thoughts drown out the Forlì traffic. When a stiff climb arrived in the last 10-12 miles, I leaned on them like a crutch. When we wish for something, it’s usually something dear. It’s enough to keep us awake at night, counting the cracks branching across the ceiling like an undiscovered species of tree. Or a wish can spring us from bed in the morning when the mysterious tree has shrunk back to something more mundane. So, I’ve always thought a saying like “be careful what you wish for” was a bit mind-boggling. In America at least, we’re encouraged to “shoot for the moon,” “follow our hearts” and “pursue our dreams.”
If those sayings are true — there are variations on this theme than stars next to that moon we’re supposed to skewer — then what lurks in stuff of our dreams? Why be careful of them? It’s like telling us Americans to buy the supposed house of our dreams (replete with picket fence and Labrador Retriever) but be careful opening the front door…
Day Two: Poggio alla Lastra, Italy to La Verna — Santuario Francescano (55 km, 34 miles and two massive climbs)
After dinner with 18 new friends the night before, I’d asked for and received (all in Italian) information about the first of two substantial climbs on the way to the Franciscan sanctuary in La Verna. The first climb was, of course, steep, long and devoid of pavement. But — and this is a small miracle — it was also completely lacking humans in the heart of the Italian holiday season.
At the bottom of the second climb, I met Marco and Daniela, my future bunk mates. For 25 euros each (including a bed), we sat at one long table for a hearty, bountiful meal with the rest of the characters in our full dorm. Across from us was a table of nuns and friars. After dinner, we wandered back around the expansive grounds of the sanctuary. The thick crowds of tourists had departed. Now, the quiet sunset was disturbed only by the melodious hymns emanating from inside the tall stone church. Staying at La Verna — where Saint Francis received his mysterious stigmata — was positively magical.Watching day fading into the night, I spotted brilliant Venus first. Then the first star, which I wish up on every night. I realized I never really wished intensely for anything before the last few years. Therefore, I had no cause to ponder such mysteries as being careful of my wishes. I used to be more content to be the leaf in the stream, thrilled when the ever-flowing waters washed me up on one bank or another. Then, I chose to tether myself a bit in the deeper, colder waters of Colorado and further still, in marriage. At some point, I realized why even someone who has “Go with the flow” tattooed on her forehead should have a bit of a direction, if not a heartfelt wish or dream. I retained this new mindset when I pulled up all my roots and hopped back in the stream.
At that point, I got myself a figurative rifle (it was surprisingly easy, being American) for target practice on the moon, stopped by a grungy gas station to buy a roadmap to my heart and signed up for a class on tracking and pursuing dreams. Then, I decided to undertake a bike ride across the Southern US and to do it alone. While pedaling down the latter half of the sunny California coast and across the (at times surprisingly cold) Southern US, I was dreaming and scheming. Every star had a word written across it; every glimpse of the constellation Orion demanded I hang a wish on its belt — and it all had to do with Italy. I worked my strangely-tanned butt off to get over here and when I did — despite a chaotic transition that began at the airport — I thought this is it, my dream is finally coming true.
And within a month, I had a cheerful, bubbly Polish roommate named Olga who said things like “Be careful what you wish for.” It’s still a mind-boggling sentence because only in a wonderful, dreadfully paradoxical world like ours would there be something within our own dreams that we should watch out for. But at around three months since I moved to Italy, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the irony.
Day Three: La Verna — Umbertide, Italy (78 km, 48.5 miles)
This lovely ride consisted mostly of rolling roads strewn with potholes like chunks of beef in ragu. The route took us through the countryside, to minuscule towns with curious citizens who would stop gardening and talking when I passed by. The route included one sweaty climb and a couple of dirt roads, all with rewarding views.Of course, still with little cell service to speak of and a lot of time on my sweaty hands, my mind soon picked up the same thread. I’d been pondering what happens when the lemons arrive… you know, when life hands them to you.
If things always turned out the way we imagined, it would be boring. Isn’t there a saying about that, too? If our friends never unexpectedly decided they didn’t want to be our friends anymore, there wouldn’t be a space for new ones… like this group from Forli. They made me their honorary 19th member after I took a journaling pause and came back to find my peaceful table conquered by their group. Truthfully, it was a very amicable takeover.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this thinking, I’d rolled into Umbertide, civilization and another agriturismo. First, I found the massive castle guarding the medieval center……and not far from that, my little “mini apartamento,” complete with tiny, adorable kitchen. Unfortunately the hot water wasn’t cooperating… fortunately, a cold shower was the ticket after riding to Umbertide in volcanic air. And fortunately-er, the sweet lady who ran the place felt so bad about the hot water that she gave me a bottle of local wine before she left for the evening.
Day Four: Umbertide, Italy — Abbazia Montealbate, Italy (25 km, 15.5 miles)
Vigorous thunderstorms the evening before (enjoyed from inside the mini apartamento) led to another gloriously colorful sunset, which I enjoyed on my stroll to check out the medieval heart of Umbertide. The rain and thunder tapped me on the shoulder to say, “Ahem, do you mind if we come with you?”
A change in the weather wasn’t surprising — first of all because there’s that saying about not being able to change the weather and I’m pretty sure that’s a metaphor for life. In Umbertide, facing a remote section of dirt and asphalt that dove through the higher reaches of the Appenines into Abruzzo, I paused. There, I was perched on the last finger of civilization, about to be flicked into unknown terrain.
The wild unknown is what feeds those parts of me that a giant gorgonzola pizza cannot… but at this point in my life (oh how old I’ve grown!) I took stock. I remembered other times I’d drug myself or been drug out into the wilds on a bike, only to find slippery rocks, cuts and bruises, cold, wet nights and friendly lightning bolts as company. Through my disappointment, I saw I’d be better off cooking up a new route at lower elevations. So, reluctantly I ditched the Original Plan and came up with the Changing Plan. This one involved a train connecting me from Assisi to Florence, where I could ride back over the Apennines to Faenza, (illegally) wild camping along the way.
A literal black cloud followed me out the door, even with a reasonably early start. The cloud arrived before I could make it to Assisi; luckily, I spotted a sign for an abbey and rode uphill for about 6-7 km (a few miles) to find the commanding buttresses of the Benedictine Abbazia Montealbate. Thankfully, there was a modern building next to it with a covered porch. I dove under the awning just in time for the rain, lightning and thunder. I asked a man in a red jeep locking one of the gates (which likely meant he was involved with the abbey/was probably not an axe murder) if there was a fountain for water. Since this is the day of things that led to other things, he unlocked the building for me and I filled up every container I had. Then, I hunkered down to enjoy the storm.
This led to me still hunkering while a group arrived for a pre-arranged tour of the abbey. The man in the red jeep — Antonio — flagged me down and I joined in on an hour-long tour of the old, dank, interesting abbey and the lives of the Benedictine monks who lived there…
Among many things, the monks farmed (with an antique tractor from American soil, which Antonio made sure to point out to me), made wine, raised and slaughtered animals (there was a room for that with creepy hooks on the ceiling) and painted glorious frescoes on the impossibly high-roofed chapel. One of the most fascinating parts was the entrance — the door was not much more than waist-high. This meant everyone who arrived had to bend over and enter staring at an ancestor of the giant spiders still residing in the abbey. If the Benedictines didn’t recognize or appreciate the guest, they’d nail them in the back of the head. Gruesome but efficient.
After the tour, the weather improved slowly but surely, which led me to think of pitching my tent outside the porch. This led to Antonio returning and asking me — as happens frequently when I’m on tour alone — if I felt afraid to sleep outside. I said no; Antonio said well maybe I wasn’t but he was… although I’d been looking forward to a quiet night under the stars, he more or less forced me to come down to the “town” beneath the abbey. Here, Antonio said, there was an apartment I could stay in with a “bed and a bathroom.”
In reality, it was a big house shared by a gaggle of archeologists from Croatia, Slovenia, Ireland, England, France and Italy. As I watched, Antonio managed to simultaneously ask and tell the archeologists (to their amusement) that I needed a bed. Before I knew it, I had a bunk in the same room as the Irish girl, a hot shower and a shared dinner and breakfast with this eclectic group. The only bummer (for me, the late-rising lizard) was that all the archeologists got up at 6:30 a.m…
Day Five: Abbazia Montealbate, Italy — Assisi, Italy — Monte Subasio, Italy (62 km, 39 miles, 1000+m/3300+f climbing)
After a groggy goodbye to the archeological gang, decked out with boots and wheelbarrows, I headed for Assisi on rolling roads. With such an early start, I figured I’d have plenty of time to find somewhere to sleep. I had no luck at the first couple agriturismos I asked and there was no one around at a large Catholic church. But as I turned off a tertiary road in such bad shape it looked like an original Roman road, there was a sign for a campground. It was shady, spacious and clean, the staff was delightful and there was an inexpensive pizzeria within sausage-throwing distance from my tent. I set up camp and then fixed my sights on the grassy top of Monte Subasio. On the way up, I checked out the city, including a view of the infamous Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi.My friend Betta, giver of the Original Plan, suggested I do a day ride into the natural park there. Looming high above the medieval spires of Assisi at about 1290 m (4232 feet) I found Monte Subasio. I had some work to do since camp was at around 250 m (820 feet). But I had the entirety of a sunny afternoon, with the storms I’d avoided lingering to the north. And I had plenty of thoughts… I was still pondering the mysterious unfolding of dreams when they actually come true — but not the way we expect.
For example, if we didn’t suddenly have to find a new place to live in a foreign country, we wouldn’t realize we could do it — and many other feats — on our own. Like bike tours that take us into the hinterlands of the Apennine mountains.
If our jobs didn’t start earlier and more chaotically than we imagined, we wouldn’t be forced to jump in head first, grow and blossom like we can when we’re forced to.
And if our relationships developed along the trajectories we’d dreamt up or expected, we wouldn’t learn to adapt and reevaluate and make own ourselves happy. For me, that always includes something outdoors and more often than not, on a bike. Surprised? I’m being quite specific here with bike tours and finding a home in Italy, but the fact is life is completely out of our control, even its best parts, the ones that seem made for us like fire for the tip of a candle. The trick is what we do next.
And at the top of this magical, steep climb, I ate sausage and cheese and imagined being a hawk, soaring above the curved, mysterious world…Day Six: Assisi — Train — Firenze — San Giovanni Maggiore (36 km, 22 miles)
After a leisurely morning, I caught the 11:22 train to Firenze. I spent the next couple hours reading, journaling and secretly listening to two other bike tourists — a frizzy-haired Italian couple — argue about their route.
When I exited in Florence, the heat radiated enthusiastically off everything, like it usually does there. I had no appetite for crowds and had experienced Florence many times, so I rode straight towards the rise of the Appenines. I chose the road to Fiesole which was very scenic but abruptly steep; eventually, it levels to a rolling road that parallels the main one to Faenza. Soon, I enjoyed major descent into Borgo San Lorenzo, after which only the climb remained, to the Passo Della Colla. My legs were a bit weary from battling Monte Subasio the day before but I’d anticipated the feeling. A few miles outside of Borgo San Lorenzo was a tiny “town” called San Giovanni Maggiore — named for the church that swallowed most of its real estate. And churches — second only to police stations, fire departments and fields of friendly farmers — are the perfect spot for guerrilla camping. In Italy — as much of Europe — no wild camping is allowed unless the camper in question sets up a tent at sunset and breaks it down at dawn. We all know how impossible part two of this equation is for me…Luckily for me, when I knocked on the cobweb and cat infested door attached to the church in San Giovanni Maggiore, it was answered by an old man named Paolo. At first, his milky eyes were confused; he thought I wanted to sleep inside the church and said it was impossible without a reservation. When I told him I had a tent, he nodded his approval.
Kind Paolo opened up the tomb-like building next to my tent so I could use the bathroom and turned on the water and gas for me. He also gifted me a bottle of cold water and an heirloom tomato bigger than one of the newborn kittens sniffing my tent. I promised to turn everything off, lock the door and drop the keys in his mailbox before I left the next morning. Then I set about drinking the water, devouring the tomato and being devoured by every mosquito between Faenza and Firenze.
Day Seven: San Giovanni Maggiore — Casaglia (19 km, 12 miles, 700 m or 2300 f climbing)
A persistent rooster tried to rouse me before 9 o’clock but I resisted until the tractor joined in. I’d slept like a brick cemented in place; San Giovanni Maggiore was blissfully quiet and peaceful, especially once all the vampire mosquitos went to bed. Ahead of me was the climb over the top of Passo Della Colla, but otherwise, it was only about 70 km back to Faenza. I had a choice: ride up, over and all the way home or camp somewhere and return the next day. I figured I’d just see how it evolved.
Meanwhile, I packed and breakfasted leisurely, turned off the gas and water, left Paolo a note in horrible Italian and departed. Again, it was hot; again, I didn’t mind.
The restaurant at the top of the Passo was clogged with bikers and motorcyclists like a happy, caffeinated drain. I remembered this from past voyages to that spot on bike or in a car with my ex and our friend Pete. I stopped for a caffè to reward myself for climbing 2300 feet in just a few miles, talking with a very nice, married road biker couple from Faenza. They were tickled that I was touring alone and made me promise to meet them for a coffee when we were all back home.
On the way up, I’d circled back to wishes — I remembered the saying “If wishes were like fishes, we’d all cast nets.” I believe this signifies that wishes — like slippery little fishes — aren’t easy to catch. But when you catch them, you can eat them, let them go, give them to your friend, feed them to your cat or… who knows. Because, like I’ve talked about, even if and when you catch your slippery little wishes, they might not even look like fishes. I think the larger point is to get the net out in the first place. And then, be open to what develops. Maybe this is where the saying “Go with the flow” came from…
Afterwards, it was a big, downhill reward. The day was so glorious I decided I might as well not head home yet; I let the fates decide where I might camp. A church in Casaglia — the first tiny mountain town that arrived on the way down — was appealing. Something told me to keep looking and I soon found a soccer field on the outskirts. Soccer is cool but beyond it was a fenceless sea of wildflowers and a row of apple trees that provided just enough shade and a little, flat bench. This was just perfect for my friend Igor’s under-the-radar, apple tree green tent, which I set up quite illegally around three o’clock in the afternoon. No one noticed me until the old folks started doing their post-dinner walks around 8 p.m., at which point it appeared I’d just set up camp like I was supposed to.
Day Eight: Casaglia — Faenza (50 km, 31 miles)
A large apple falling on the tent sounded like a small atom bomb, waking me from a restful sleep that smelled of flowers. Outside, the sun was already blazing and I sweated as I packed up my stuff. When I pushed my bicycle through the field and back onto the road, a leathery old man on a tractor tipped his hat to me.
I felt satisfied riding back to Faenza; no need for a GPS, I know the road by heart. Down the curving roads, stopping first in picturesque Crespino del Lamone. Here, near the little restaurant where one can grab a good plate of pasta or a piadina, there’s a fountain from which pours some of the freshest, coldest water around. Below, after descending on shady, smooth roads there are the tiny towns of Poggiol di Termine, Camurano and Ponte di Camurano. Then Marradi, where Lisa and I once hiked and where they were setting up eerie props, hanging masked monsters and ghouls from streetlights, preparing for an “Evening of Witches.” Further down, the road straightened and flattened after Casa Corloni and Popolano. The valley widened and the temperature rose a bit by Fognano and Brishighella. Here, I turned off on the back roads past Sarna that I haunt on my pink road bike; soon, I was back in Faenza, extricating the dirty clothes from my panniers.
After a few months of what my friend Emareya would call “robust yin and yang” these eight days and seven nights were a bane. I felt like I’d come back to a more peaceful, joyful version of myself. There is something about bike touring with its unknowns, planning, challenges and adventures that I find immensely rewarding and refreshing. The only thing was I wished I could just keep riding…
That wish, too was answered rather quickly, as ExperiencePlus (the bicycle tour company here in Italy that I’ve worked for since 2009) asked me to help lead a tour in Austria and Germany starting on August 22. In case you’re wishing you can hear all about it, be careful what you wish for…