Homeward Bound – Skipping Through Italy

I’d worked hard to fund the ride home. Never before while on the road had I felt sufficiently flush as to splash out on a fresh delicious pizza, or a mouth-wateringly flavoursome ice-cream, or a expertly-prepared cappucino on an almost-daily basis!

Cappucino
Cappucino

Travelling with a partner drastically changes the dynamic of bicycle touring. I can’t deny I’ve enjoyed this relative hedonism, because I am passionate about food and cooking when I have the opportunity to partake of it, and these are three of the culinary specialities of Italy, which also remain very affordable as long as you avoid the tourist hotspots – which on a bike trip is relatively easy.

It’s been a wholly different experience, in fact, this final ride. In all honesty, I’d made up my mind to put my own desires and ways of doing things to the back of my mind. This was to be Tenny’s trip, not mine – I’ve spent plenty of time exploring Europe in the past, so it was my job to gently coax her through the process of travelling to England and enjoying the experience of getting there by bicycle (and carry all the luggage).

She is still very much finding her feet, and it’s been quite a test, as we’re not well matched in stamina or experience, but after a month I can feel that she is beginning to adapt, and to learn the lessons I learnt when I started out; the biggest of which is that the point of travelling by bicycle is not to reach a destination, but to watch the world unfold on the way there. For someone like her who has only ever boarded a vehicle in anticipation of reaching the end of the journey – and that’s most people alive today – it’s actually a far more difficult adaptation than it sounds.

Wild camping in Italy
Stealth-camping in Puglia

We’ve wild-camped a few times, which is something Andy and Mark and I never did in Western Europe (aside from one night in a country park on the outskirts of Huntingdon). Back then, we had developed a highly refined process of giving local people the opportunity to help us find a field/shed/garden/garage to sleep in, which was a great way of getting ourselves into all sorts of unusual situations, and we were all very much on the same wavelength when it came to wanting to do that.

I’ve been reluctant to follow this tried-and-tested method of local interaction, because I know that Tenny isn’t comfortable with the unpredictability of it just yet, or with the rather high possibility of ending up as guests in somebody’s home, which she finds stressful if it occurs too regularly. But having wild-camped practically the entire way around the Middle East for months on end, not to mention in Mongolia where it was the only option, I’ve felt far more comfortable doing it in Europe without permission from anyone, so that’s been our main fallback in the absence of a campsite. I do miss the hospitality which a bit of human connection often invokes. I know that it’s frequently tiring, especially after a long day’s riding and a lack of common language, but these encounters formed some of my most treasured memories of voyaging out of Europe more than three years ago.

Lunchtime
Lunch-time in a small Italian town square

After two weeks exploring Puglia, Italy’s balmy south-east peninsular, we took a train to Rome. These long-distance trains don’t normally take bicycles, but we convinced the office in Bari to call the train staff and have them convert one of the luggage racks into a bicycle rack – less than 30 minutes before the train arrived at our station.

Our host was a veteran of giving hospitality to cycle tourists through a website called Warmshowers.org. A couple of years ago, he said, he’d hosted Rob Lilwall, whose adventures cycling home from Siberia I’d previously read about in his entertaining book and watched with not a little envy on his mini-series on the National Geographic Adventure channel. I couldn’t believe how many tourists it was possible to pack into a single city centre – modern-day Rome is a victim of its own success as a historical honeypot, said our host.

Swarming
Swarming with people, we could hear English, French, German, Farsi, Arabic and Russian being spoken within a couple of minutes outside the Colosseum

As we wandered the streets, stumbling upon splendid sight after splendid sight, all milling with people from every corner of the globe, I tried to remind myself that each one of these people had a unique life history and reason for being in this very place at this very moment, and that any one of them might have a story as random as my own of the process that had led to this point. Imagine if a group of these strangers all spontaneously sat down together and each told such a story!

But we all walked as if alone, pretending or at least wishing that we were the only ones setting eyes on these ancient wonders, as I truly had been in Syria last year. To anyone who wishes to explore Roman ruins in solitude – heck, even sleep amongst them if they so desire – I recommend Syria heartily. It’s not that far away.

Bel temple, Palymra
Roman Temple of Bel, Tadmur, Syria, entirely bereft of tourists

And so to France, the penultimate stop before those familiar white cliffs appear on the horizon!

Now, suddenly, I can feel just how close I am to completing this epic life journey, and I am relishing the prospect of forging a new future out of everything it’s given me.

The journey recounted in this archived post is now the subject of the award-winning documentary film Janapar: Love, on a Bike.

Click here to watch the trailer in a new tab →

6 Responses to “Homeward Bound – Skipping Through Italy”

  1. Liz Allen

    Another great blog. Interesting to read your view of travelling with a different perspective.
    I’m sure you are as proud of Tenny as we are – it is not a journey to be undertaken lightly and she has ceased the opportunity in spite of any reservations she may have felt. She should be pleased with herself and will be able to look back on her experiences and achievements with pride.
    Take care. Enjoy the rest of your journey.
    Lots of love xxxx

    Reply
  2. andy

    nice one mate. See you soon! Say hi to Tenny and happy aniversary!

    Reply
  3. Stephen Chapman

    Sounds like another good journey Tom. Travelling with a partner always helps you to see a place differently I think. My experience was similar in that I became less immersed in the unfamiliar and more concerned about the experience my fiancé was having. Our wants and needs are different and that meant staying in different places, visiting different sights and generally doing things differently to if I were on my own, which takes some adjusting to. The real treasure is in being able to share everything with someone else. We both found it an immensely rewarding experience not just in the moment but years later, and I’m sure for you and Tenny this trip will provide a lifetime of memories.

    Enjoyed reading your impressions of Rome. Syria sounds like a great place to visit.

    Reply
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  5. Tiina

    Did you find it difficult to find spots to wild camp in Puglia? We are traveling there in a week and planning to rely on a tent and wild camping. We are just a bit concerned that it will be difficult to find spots, and we will end up in hotels. Where did you travel in Puglia, and did you find the camping spots near beaches or did you climb somewhere higher?

    Reply

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