It was the equivalent of one of those days when you turn up at work and just potter around doing bits and pieces but never seem to get to tackling the big issues in your job. This tends to happen for me as a teacher on the very occasional days that I have only one class to teach. I spend the entire day just walking from building to building ostensibly being very active but in reality achieving very little… The cycle itself was a modest one – just 80km – and straightforward. Literally. From Cremona to Voghera was a case of following just the one road, the SS10, with just a little bit of wiggle at each end to get from where I was staying to where I would be staying.
Breakfast with Diago was a continuation of the welcoming charm that he and his small family had displayed the evening before. We chatted food, cycling, the future… and then it was off into the very picturesque countryside between his house and Piacenza. And for the first time since leaving southern Greece, most of this first part of my journey was on dedicated & segregated cycle paths. In fact the whole area had a cycling feel to it as I passed numerous other cyclists, both the Lycra-clad lot and just the ordinary folk using their bike to go from A to B. There was even a cycling-themed piece of modern art that was celebrating the 70th ‘Gran Premio Agostano’ which I presumed was a local cycle race. More research needed.
As the countryside slowly turned into the city and I crossed over the River Po into the very heart of Piacenza my thoughts turned back to 2010 as something personally significant but fundamentally inconsequential was about to happen. Three years ago after spending the night at Simone’s flat (yes, that’s Simone who now lives in Venice) in Pavia, we cycled together south. Just after Piacenza, Simone turned back and I continued along the road to Brindisi but we paused for coffee in Piacenza. At the time it was just another city along the route. It was a Sunday morning and very quiet. It took us quite some time to actually find a café that was open and when we did it was just outside of the central area near the train station. My impression of the place was subdued simply as there seemed to be no life to the place. On this occasion my impression was far more positive and as I cycled into the very heart of the city with the main square as my destination there was markedly more hustle and bustle. I found a café on the main square and sat down to ponder about the fact that my two long-distance crossings of Europe had just intersected.
Strictly speaking Piacenza did not mark the half-way point between Greece and Portugal in anything apart from the time I have available to me to complete this trip. The physical half-way point is further west in the Nice area of France and I am a few days behind schedule if I do indeed plan to make it to Cape St.Vincent before the end of the month. However, sitting in that grand square I felt at least a certain amount of pride about what I had so far achieved and the crossing points of my 2010 and 2013 trips brought a tear to my eye. Well, it didn’t. If it had done it would have no doubt been the sun cream dripping from my newly polished forehead and making my eyes water. I recorded a short video to mark the moment (it is very difficult to smile who you a recording such things; I’m sure Alan Whicker had the same issues) and then off I went along the road to Voghera.
I must have stopped at least three if not four times along my route. Knowing that I only had a distance of 40km or so to cover made me pleasantly complacent about the job in hand. I first took a small deviation to view a medieval castle at Sarmato (it was closed to the public despite having been heavily advertised from the main road), then to ponder over the ubiquitous nature of statues of Garibaldi in Italy in Castel San Giovanni, again in Stradlla where I bought an ice-cream and sat in the park listening to a bunch of old ladies (who referred to each other as ‘ragazze’ when one of then arrived or departed) while going through various start of month admin tasks on my iPhone and then finally in Fumo where I visited a discount supermarket and for the surprisingly small cost of 4,20€ I was able to buy a large bottle of water, two sports drinks and a very large tube of Smarties. Apart from the water, the rest of my purchases didn’t make it past the entrance of the supermarket car park. Come on… I had no choice as the Smarties would have melted!
I was now approaching the town of Voghera but the plan was to once again head into the countryside to my second WarmShowers host family. Carla had sent directions and Diego had earlier in the day talked me through where I needed to go. He had actually visited Carla and her family the previous weekend to see exactly where she lived as so many people like me were cycling from one of their houses to the other. The instructions were clear however and I found the house without too much difficult. Just a steep climb up a hill at the very end of the ride was the only challenge involved but that’s where the Smarties came in so useful. You see, I had it all planned.
Carla’s situation in the countryside is very different from Diago & his family. She has a small holding out here and grows some fruit and veg while rearing chickens and geese. Her partner is a nurse in an old people’s home in Pavia but he was around too and most of the evening was spent watching the on-going courtroom saga of Mr Berlusconi which was reaching one of its many crescendos in the appear court. His conviction was upheld much to the joy of Carla and the rest of her small extended family. The main challenge for me in staying with Carla has been that neither she nor her partner speak much English so my Italian has been stretched to breaking point. No, it broke. Several times with frequent sentences being left hanging for the want of the correct word which doesn’t translate from French by the simple addition of a vowel at the end. It’s a trick that often works. But far from always… Food was pasta, tomatoes from the garden and an omelettes courtesy of the chickens. The life here is a rudimentary one. I’ve never spent a night on what feels like a working farm before (just in places that would like to think they are working farms but where the smells wouldn’t go down very well…). Think more Grundy than Aldridge. If you have no idea what I’m referring to, switch on Radio 4 at 10am on Sunday and you’ll no doubt find out.
Today is back to long-distance riding. 120km to a small place called Cherasco where I will once again be staying with a WarmShowers person and will be able to contemplate my climb over the Alps at the weekend.