It’s now midday on Saturday and I’ve arrived in the town of Cuneo just above the plain of northern Italy. Not too high – just 550m – but the highest that I’ve been since arriving in Italy and from here over the course of the next 24 hours it will be uphill all the way. Firstly to a place called Limone Piemonte at 1,000m where I will camp overnight at a campsite called Camping Luigi Matlas. Then, tomorrow morning, I will climb further into the Alps to the Colle di Tende at 1,900m. The pass sits between peaks of around 2,800m so the views should be quite spectacular. From there I shall cycle into France and down to Nice for a rest day. Much more of all that in the next couple of days but you are not here to read about what I’m going to do, you are here to be gripped by the continuing story of what has happened along my journey to the Cape St. Vincent in Portugal. It’s time for the story of cycling day 27…
The ride immediately after leaving Pragate and the small holding where Carla lives was a beautiful one. Away from the traffic of the main road the valley was a green & peaceful start to the day. Neat houses were dotted amongst the even neater lines of the vines, crops and hay waiting to be baled. It was the picture postcard stuff that many people think of when they imagine the Italian countryside. Breakfast with Carla had been fairly minimal so I first headed into the town of Voghera to stock up on food. My route was to take in the towns and villages that were strung out along the road from Voghera all the way to Bra where I would be staying for the third consecutive night with a WarmShowers host.
The first place of interest was Tortona. I had been told some months ago that the great Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi had been born in the town of Castellania, just a few kilometres south of Tortona but had completely forgotten this gem of information. Sitting for a rehydration break in the middle of the square just outside the tourist office in Tortona my eye was caught by a large photograph of a cyclist that had been fixed to the wall just above a cycle rack. On his shirt, the cyclist had written ‘Coppi’ and I began to remember. There is only so much remembering you can do while munching through a packet of crisps however so my eyes turned to the windows of the tourist office where there was a cycling-themed poster advertising some event. I wandered over for a read and again, Coppi got a mention. It was an event in his memory that had taken place at the end of June. Outside the tourist office was a lady smoking a cigarette and chatting to one of her friends. As I wandered into the office she looked a little disgruntled as she had to stub out the cigarette and follow me. I asked if she spoke English but she didn’t. She did however confirm the Fausto Coppi connection with the town and wrote down a few key details of his life on the back of a Post-it note. Born in 1919 in Castellania, lived for most of his life in Tortona and died in Tortona in 1960 at the tender age of 41 of malaria. Clearly there is much more of a story to Coppi that can be written on a Post-it note or indeed explained in broken English which will, no doubt be retold in the book, but it was good to have stumbled upon a place that he called home.
I decided that lunch would be best served in Asti, the home of Italian sparkling wine but when I arrived after a cycle of around 90km from my starting part I was a little underwhelmed. It had little to attract the passing cycling tourist (come on folks, haven’t you got a famous local cyclist you could exploit?). Even the connection with wine seemed somewhat subdued. I had to check that there wasn’t another Asti elsewhere in Italy which was actually the one of sparkling wine fame but, no, this was it. My guide book told me it had a Palio, similar to but less famous than the one I had almost experienced in Siena in 2010 but wasn’t wholesome in its praise. Once my lunch had been digested I set off once more to the more promising place of Alba, a further 30km down the road and home to Nutella.
It was indeed far nicer with an interesting and well-kept cobbled central area packed full of the kind of shops and distractions that your average tourist just loves to see. I wandered around for a good hour or so. Very picturesque indeed, but little mention of the brand that has made the town famous; Nutella. I suspected that the large industrial complex just out of town was the Nutella factory but it was modest in its grandeur and as far as I could see didn’t have a great sign saying ‘Welcome to the home of Nutella’. I sat in (predictably) Piazza Garibaldi for a beer to celebrate my arrival at the end of a long day of cycling. And then I had another for good measure.
The problem was that I wasn’t actually at the end of my day. I still have another 20km or so to pedal to the home of may WarmShowers’ host, Lucia. She lived just outside the town of Cherasco and it started as a gentle uphill climb. Suddenly however the wilting effects of the beer began to kick in and I was struggling to cycle at any kind of speed. I needed a calorie boost and also something to soak up a little of the beer. I had the munches combined with a severe attack of bonking. I looked desperately for a shop of any kind and after about 15 minutes, on the point of exhaustion (how did it happen so quickly?), I found a bakery. In I went, bought some bread and a large bar of chocolate and sat on the step outside chomping my way through both of them. The lady inside must have detected some kind of crisis taking place outside on her step as she asked a customer to ask me if I needed water. ‘Yes’ was the answer and she refilled my bottles. Almost ready for the road again I set off, conscious of the time – it was already past 7pm – but by the time I arrived at a petrol station just a kilometre or so down the road I was ready for more sustenance so stopped again and this time bought two squares of Ritter Sport chocolate. It filled the gap somewhat and I continued cycling trying to make the point marking Lucia’s location on the electronic map and the point marking mine get as close as I could. It seemed to take a long, long time but eventually I turned off the main road and saw a woman on a bike waving in my direction. My destination had been reached.
Lucia isn’t a touring cyclist but she bumped into an Australian cyclist a few years ago outside her house. He was looking for accommodation and as she has a spare room in her house, she offered him the use of it. She subsequently put her details on WarmShowers and has been welcoming cyclists ever since. She was able to fill me up with pasta and we chatted in French as I gradually started to feel the effects of 140km of cycling and headed off to bed.
One thing that I need to note here just so that I don’t forget was the strange occurrence of a bunch of prostitutes just before the town of Castello di Annone. Why were they there but nowhere else along my route? They were all young black girls, some sat in groups of two or three strung out along the road over a distance of about three kilometres. These were not the old, aggressive looking hags that I had seen in the industrial area near Venice. Some were actually very attractive. Just after the town there was one solitary white girl, again, well-dressed and attractive but clearly selling her body. There location was curious. What had drawn them all to the little town of Castello di Annone in Piemonte, Italy?