Day 23 - Milan

Date: January 26th, 2016
Distance: Rest day

I took a day off in Milan. I know I just had two days off in Nice, but I had already planned on stopping in Milan to see the city. I am ahead of schedule, so that is what I did. I ended up walking around most of the day and I don't know what to tell you. Milan itself is a pretty big city. It reminded me of Bilbao for some reason. There is some good new architecture here, yet where Bilbao had style and flair, Milan just had size.

Well, that and a giant castle. I spent most of my time there. By now you should know that I like a good castle. By now you should also know that nothing is ever quite like it was. This castle is like most of the others I have been to, the result of hundreds of years of reinvention and restoration. My favorite part was that one tower "collapsed" during an explosion, which to me sounds like it blew up. The current tower is a restoration, and may not look much like the original.

The castle also housed a museum, which had pieces of its own history as well as stuff from all over northern Italy. It was pretty good, but wow there is a lot of stuff to see. I pretty much skipped the music hall entirely, and their collection of porcelain wares. Oh well. Sometimes you can have too much museum.

Next I went to the other big draw in the city: their Duomo, a big Gothic-style cathedral. Not too bad to look at, I would say. It is at the heart of their big posh shopping district though, so it was an odd juxtaposition from a house of worship to unbridled capitalism. The shopping arcade itself is quite impressive too. It is an amazing structure with vaulted glass ceilings covering the streets. It was fun to walk through, even if I don't need anything that was for sale there.


Day 22 - Savona to Milan

Date: January 25th, 2016
Distance: 185km
Song of the Day: Pachuca Sunrise - Minus the Bear

I woke up with the sun today. The sky was cloudy so all I could see were red slivers of light bursting out from between the clouds and the horizon. It was beautiful though. How often do you get to wake up with a view like that? Especially after spending the night sleeping under the stars. Well, not stars so much, it was pretty cloudy. The moon was just a dim glow in the sky. It didn't rain though, for which I am especially grateful. Man, what a night.

My legs weren't happy about starting again. I have been pushing too hard once more and I had a feeling things weren't going to get any better for a while. The coast here is quite steep. Even worse, there are some good rail trails along the coast, but they aren't very well marked. I have missed the entrance and only found out after looking down from a giant climb that there is a great flat route right along the shore. Very frustrating.

I did make it to the outskirts of Genoa in good tim, though things weren't getting easier. This is where the Alps plunge into the sea. My task was to get up over the mountains and down into the Po river valley beyond. Much of northern Italy is a flat river basin. All I had to do was get there, but doing that required going over the Ligurian Alps. That isn't easy even without hauling everything I will need for the next year. More to the point, it is slow. This is the Italy I remember: long winding hills that just go on and on. It took me as much time to do the 50 kilometers up the mountains as it did to do the last 135.

The mountains are also one of those places where you know there really aren't any short cuts. Well, there are a few, but they tend to be of the grand engineering variety, tunnels carved through the mountains for miles. I passed under a freeway bridge that must have been at least 200 meters in the air above me. The massive concrete columns plunged into the valley and dwarfed the houses around them. Again, I am shocked at the contrast of worlds in places like that. I wonder if the people there ever think about what is above them, or has the bridge pier blended into the background like the other hills around them?

Places like this always tend to remind me of Rwanda. Climbing, ever climbing. I am always looking for where the road is going. Trying to find the switchbacks on the ridge above me, looking to see how it curves, which saddle it will go over. The thing is, I am usually wrong. The roads are sneaky. They hide in the trees and around the shoulders of the mountains. This one looked like it was going to head off to the left over a gap that way. It surprised me by suddenly becoming a tunnel though. That I did not expect. So I said goodbye to Mediterranean for a while.

Coming down the mountain was much better. You know, it was going down. It was like coming down the valley towards San Sebastian, and it didn't last long enough. Finally the terrain flattened out, and I was cruising along.

You have a lot of time to think on trips like this. Here are some thoughts I have been having.

1. This trip is heading mostly east. That means my right side is going to be facing the sun most of the time. I wonder, will one side of me become dark brown and the other pasty white? Or could I get a shirt with sleeves on just one side? Do trousers with one long leg still count as shorts?

2. I saw a cassette tape on the side of the road. Wow, that takes me back. Remember when you would see that all the time? Someone would get tired of listening to New Kids on the Block in their car. Eject button, a quick flick out the window, and now Step by Step was unspooled for a hundred feet along the edge of the road, like brown tinsel trimming the weeds next to the highway. It has been a while since I have seen that. I wonder what tape so angered this particular Italian?

3. I think of long distance biking as chasing down the sun every day. You go for as long as you can while the sun is up and for each day I head east the day becomes shorter, the sun sets earlier where I stop than where I started from. It isn't just a little bit, either. The sunset here in northern Italy is almost an hour earlier hear than in Bilbao. I am not losing all those minutes, though. They are sort of saved up for a while. Like a bank account of minutes and seconds. Eventually (when I cross the international date line) I will get them all back as an extra day. Weird.

I was thinking about the sunset, because it was that time of day. A mist had moved in as well, so the evening was getting cold. Outside of Pavia I picked up a great bike route into Milan along the canal. I knew it was cold because part of the canal had frozen, and that was another odd thought, how much just moving inland has changed the temperature. I was glad to have a warm hostel for the night.


Day 21 - Nice to Savona

Date: January 24th, 2016
Distance: 169km
Song of the Day: Grace Kelly Blues - The Eels

Today I got back on the road. I left Nice heading East towards Monaco. Once again, this was a part of Europe I have biked before. But last time I took a strange road up in the hills. It was awful. Lots of steep climbs, and often not much to see either. I didn't make that mistake this time, and I am so glad. There are days on this trip that have been very tough. Today was one of the days that makes everything seem easy. The sun was shining and I was riding my bike along the coast of France. Below me was the Mediterranean, and above me were giant white stone cliffs. Beautiful little towns dotted the way in every little cove. Riding just doesn't get much better.

I made it to Monaco in good time. The biggest thing slowing me down was stopping to take pictures. I tried to find a post office to mail some postcards, but I forgot it was Sunday. When I finally did find one, it was closed. Dang. At least I got to see Monte Carlo for a bit. I was also passed by a car that costs more than I have ever made in my life. I felt bad for the guy though, later he was stuck in traffic and I was just ripping by all the fancy cars on my bike.

From there it was back to France for a few more miles, and then into Italy. That is four borders and three countries in one day. Not too bad right?

Crossing into Italy felt a bit like crossing into France from Spain. Everything just seemed "Italian". It is weird how much the character of a place changes because of some imaginary line on a map. The streets were different. The buildings were a bit more simple and solidly built. Even the hills changed. Here they were painted with rocky terraces that you wouldn't see in France.

I mentioned earlier that I had been this way once before, except travelling the opposite way. Since this was the only road (that wasn't a freeway) I knew that I must have ridden it six years ago. Yet almost everything I saw was like seeing it for the first time. There were little villages and even big towns that I didn't remember at all. It got me thinking about what the half-life of a memory is. What makes things stick in our minds forever, and what fades away? I know I am already forgetting things from the start of the trip. Portugal I remember fondly, even if the details are getting a bit fuzzy now.

Then I would pass something that would bring back memories like a wave breaking over me. Often it wasn't something grand, not a giant cathedral or castle. It was little things, like a supermarket that I stopped at years ago. Or a bus stop I ate some bread at. Seeing that place again, I would be awash with memories. Sometimes a random memory would get swept up in it all, something that wasn't anchored in a place any more. These random fragments of memory would nag at my brain for a while. Was that from my trip to Australia last year? Or maybe from Hawaii a few years before that? Was it warm that day, or do I just remember it being sunny? I also thought about what I would remember from today. What could I do to secure these thoughts in this time and this place? Tie them down to today so they don't wash away. I also thought of my friends back home. What have you done to remember today? Riding a bike all day gives you a lot of time to think and your mind can wander to some very strange places.

The day got dark on me early. I saw the sun setting over the ocean and I still wanted to make up some miles. I know tomorrow is going to be a long day too. I stopped for some pizza after sundown and kept riding for a little bit more, then got to Savona before my energy ran out. There aren't that many good places to stay along this part of the coast. There are lots of hotels, but they are expensive and I didn't feel like going through the effort of finding something. Normally I would just find a nice, unnoticed place to camp in, but there aren't really many of those around. The coastline is rugged and hilly. Any flat spaces have towns on them, and the rest are either rocky bluffs over the ocean or cut through with tunnels. Eventually I did find a wonderful spot. It was a long bench that looked out over the ocean, and hidden away from the highway. It was such a nice night I just rolled out my sleeping bag. I hope it doesn't rain.


Day 20 - Nice

Date: January 23rd, 2016
Distance: Rest day

I took another day off today. My knee and ankle were still pretty sore when I woke up, and I know I have been pushing myself pretty hard. Looking at the map I don't think the next few days are going to get much easier. I want my legs feeling good. I can't be blowing out a knee this early in my trip.

Instead I spent the day learning PHP for this website. You probably won't notice any changes, but the internal workings of the site have been cleaned up. Maybe managing my own website while I was on the trip wasn't such a great idea, but it is too late now. At least I got everything working. A few more updates and I shouldn't need to do anything to it for a while except update the blog. I did also update the sponsors page and added my twitter account to the contact page.

Once I had as much PHP as my brain could handle, I hung out with the other kids at the hostel. I really do enjoy meeting people from all over and talking about life. Staying at a hostel isn't just about getting a bed to sleep in, it is also to meet people. You get new ideas, different perspectives, and good advice on traveling. To all the people I met in Nice, thank you. I had a blast.


Day 19 - Nice

Date: January 22nd, 2016
Distance: Rest day

On waking up today I decided to rest for a day in Nice. My legs are shot. Plus, yesterday I did the equivalent of two days of riding, so I don't feel bad about taking the day off. Since that isn't very exciting, here's a beautiful picture of the harbor in Nice.


Day 18 - Le Canet to Nice

Date: January 21st, 2016
Distance: 199km
Song of the Day: Great Day - Ellen Says No

I woke up this morning in the clouds. A mist had settled on the hill I was camping at, and I couldn't look down to the town I had seen the night before. I could see just a few trees and rocks around me, everything else was white, like staring out onto a blank page of a sketch book.

The first five kilometers of the day were the toughest I have done in a while. Up hill and gravel. It was cold riding through the mist but it was amazing too. The sun was just starting to burn through the fog, the day was breaking warm and blue. I was in some of the most amazing countryside I had been through in France. Where was this yesterday? Hours of boring riding, and today I come to this? I just felt alive and lucky to be here. I don't know if it is coming across, how much I enjoyed this. Let me put it this way, it was the kind of morning that makes you want to change the background for your website.

Once I got back to the paved road, things got back to being kind of normal, though better than the day before. I was up in the hills and there were lots of great views, forests and little towns. That did mean a lot of climbing, and I mean a lot of climbing. I did something around 1,500 meters of climbing. That is almost a mile straight up. I was happy to be riding the down hill slope of that.

After a couple of navigation errors I wound up in St. Raphael just after sunset. From the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in a less than a week. Not bad. I was hoping to get there before the sun set, though. That part of the coast line from St. Raphael to Cannes is some of the most amazing in the world. I was so impressed when I went through there before. Giant red rocks bursting from green hillsides and tumbling down into an aqua blue sea. Beautiful.

Unfortunately, when I got there it was fully dark. The rocks were just dark monoliths blending in with the dark hillsides. Black waves crashing on dim rocks, making white foam in the moonlight. I came to realize that it wasn't the sunlight that made this coast beautiful though. It was great even in the deep shades of the night. I took a lesson from Professor Dave and turned my music off. I just rode along, listening to the hum of my tires on the pavement, the crackle of gravel, the waves crashing on the rocks below. There weren't even any cars around. I was all alone on that little stretch of road. For the second time that day I felt very lucky to be alive. Who gets to do this? Ride a bike along an oceanside highway by the light of the moon? If you like to ride a bike, you should come here at least once in your life. You won't be disappointed. I am blessed to be able to do this ride twice, once by day and once by night.

As I got closer to Cannes, things got more populated. More houses and resorts, fewer empty coves and wave pounded rocks. It was still nice, but not as good. Coming into Cannes itself, I felt very odd. I had been here before and my previous impression of Cannes was "what a dump". This time I was impressed with how bourgeois it was: upscale shops and fancy restaurants, super nice hotels that I would feel uncomfortable staying at. It wasn't until I was leaving Cannes that I figured out why. Six years ago I was heading the opposite way and the east side of the town was all shuttered hotels, closed until the summer holiday season. I must have missed everything else while leaving last time, so my impression was of a city that was a ghost town. It is weird how much the direction you face changes your impression of a place.

After that, the last bit into Nice was a bear. My left ankle started giving me twinges of pain, but then favoring that then made my right knee start to hurt. That mile of climbing was all coming back to haunt me. I tried to slow down but that just made my butt hurt. Urgh. The one good part in all of this is that the route was not only pretty flat, there was also a nice bike path. I have to give it to Nice, it is the first place in France that seems to get what a bike path should be. Still, maybe it is easy because it just goes along the ocean. There are no crossings for cars, so you can just pedal and go. I was very happy to get to my hostel. My poor legs need a rest.


Day 17 - Montpellier to Le Canet

Date: January 20th, 2016
Distance: 169km
Song of the Day: On a Plain - Nirvana

I got up early for once, had a good breakfast, and was on the road by 8:30 am. That is pretty good for me. Of course getting out of town was a struggle, as it usually is. Give me open roads and I can go, but towns mean stoplights and trying to navigate.

Most of the day was pretty boring, mostly flat grounds and empty fields, nothing to look at. The weather was cloudy but not raining and there was a slight headwind. This is jut not my part of France. My apologies to the people who live here, but I don't plan on coming back.

Leaving Salon-de-Provence things started getting better. I found some trees and some nice hills. Sure, that meant I was climbing up those hills, but it was nice to see something good to look at. Maybe too nice. I wanted to do a bunch of miles and there were lots of good looking places to camp. I pressed on knowing that tomorrow would be awful if I didn't. It was already going to be long.

I passed through Aix-en-Provence at sunset. More slow lights and navigation, so after that I started really looking for a place to camp. It took a while. The last five kilometers were me looking around various dirt roads. Eventually I found the perfect spot: it wasn't all that far from the city, but it wasn't near anything. It looked like no one ever came out there. I pitched my tent under the stars and the moon.


Day 16 - Montpellier

Date: January 19th, 2016
Distance: Rest day

After the day I had yesterday it seemed like a good point to take a break. It is weird coming back here, though. I was in Montpellier on my last bike tour through Europe, except going the other way. I am staying at the same hostel I did six years ago. I even stopped today to do laundry, though much more successfully this time. It is dredging up memories that are now more like one of those dreams you can't quite remember after you wake up. At least it has given me a chance to do the things I have been needing to do. I hope you enjoy these updates.


Day 15 - Carcassonne to Montpellier

Date: January 18th, 2016
Distance: 149 km
Song of the Day: Pudding Sky - Fey Moth

Well, that was one hell of a day. The last two days I had been riding with a "Cers" wind, dry air from over the Pyrenees pushing me East. Today everything changed. The weather switched to an "Autan". The morning broke cold and cloudy with winds from the Mediterranean. That meant I spent the day riding against the wind. Ugh. I was not making good time, which is lame because I had a hostel lined up in Montpellier for the night.

Things didn't get any better as the day went on. It started snowing about noon. That was actually kind of pleasant, since there is a kind of calm and quiet to snow. It didn't stop, and most of the afternoon it would switch between rain and sleet. My gloves aren't waterproof and my hands were freezing most of the ride. (The rest of me was quite warm thanks to several layers of wool, though. Thank you, sheep.) At least in Spain when the weather was like this the wind was going with me. I was fighting the wind all day today.

After biking through this area twice, I can say I am not much impressed. The coast between Nice and St. Tropez is very beautiful, the rest is kind of boring, and in my experience the weather has been hit or miss. Maybe I need to come at the right time of year?


Day 14 - Toulouse to Carcassonne

Date: January 17th, 2016
Distance: 96 km
Song of the Day: The Man Who Sold the Wolrd - David Bowie

Short day today. I wanted something short so I could go see the fortress at Carcassonne. I didn't feel too bad about taking an easy day after yesterday, if nearly 100 km can be called "easy". I have been screaming across France. Not without good reason, France is expensive. Everything is significantly more costly here than in either Spain or Portugal. It has also been cold and rainy, which doesn't exactly make me want to linger. Today was very nice though, sun all the way. I think I even got a sun burn.

The road from Toulouse to Carcassonne was pretty flat. The towns seemed to be on the high ground, but really that may just be a few meters above the surrounding fields. I keep looking at these nice little farm houses and thinking about what it must be like to live there, what it would be like to become a local. I could practice my French and move into a place like that. Then I think about what all these people are doing out here. I have been through so many little villages around the world. What makes someone want to stay in these small towns? What do they do for fun? I have noticed a lot of posters up in these villages in France. I can't understand everything, but it seems to be about who is playing at the local fair ground or which highschool is putting on a play. This kind of slow pace would drive me nuts. I am not knocking this kind of life, it just isn't for me. No, I think I am more of a city person. I like the energy and the hustle of life there. I may come to the country for vacation, but I wouldn't want to stay.

That may also be why I like going to these places so much. Not to stay, but to see what it is like. It is the out of the way corners of the earth that I think are really interesting, the places the guide books don't talk about. When you go to a destination you get the tourist view of the place. When you find yourself traveling through one of the unknown little spots on the globe it is like a window to a wider world. The people you see aren't tourists or tour guides, just men and women going about their daily lives. I tend to be an interesting anomaly, but nothing more exciting. Most people only notice me because I am still wearing shorts...

The last 25 kilometers were flat and with the wind at my back. I made great time on the day. I was also happy to reach Carcassonne with time enough to see La Cite. Really, that is what it was. A walled city, with two lines of defenses and a medieval keep. Inside the city walls are a number of little shops and restaurants. It is a little like Disneyland, except without all the rides, and with a real castle. Actually, it really reminds me of this place where I grew up called Alaskaland. (I know it is Pioneer Park now, but I always think of it as Alaskaland.) It has the same kind of mix between real history and places to get snacks and souvenirs. It is also a public park. You can take a stroll around most of the citadel for free. You can ride your bike or take your dog as well, or you can stand on the ramparts of the outer bailey and stare out towards the Pyrenees at sunset.

I should mention that the castle is maybe a bit more like the Disney castle than I let on. It isn't fake in the sense that it is plaster over wood and chicken wire. It is, however, the result of restructuring and restoration going back a few thousand years. It was first built (in stone) by the Romans, and rebuilt and modified for over a millennium before being mostly abandoned in the 1600s. The top part, including all the roofs, are reconstructions of what might have been there. So, did the city ever really look exactly this way? No, probably not. But it is part of living history. You can see it in the layers of the walls. Starting with the Romans, and going through the works of the Visigoths, the Francs, Cathars, French, and modern restorers. I used to think that historical sites were exactly as they were first built. Real history isn't like that, though. It is a series of changes, and re-invention, and adaptation. What you get is something far more grand and interesting than just a static building. It is the sweat and thoughts of people for over two thousand years.

It goes on today as well. Keeping a fortress like this repaired was never an easy task. All the little shops and restaurants are an important part to keeping places like this alive. If no one comes to visit, if it isn't worth a little bit of money, the walls will go back to falling apart. The Fortress City of Carcassonne is a monument to that kind of re-invention. Even if it doesn't look quite like it did during the Albigensian Crusade.