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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.