Italy Day 3: Rome to Valmontone - The kindness of strangers (3.5km)
My alarm went off at eight. Outside it was foggy again. I was eager to get going, to get on the bikes, and got dressed and went for breakfast alone. Still sleepy I helped myself to a coffee. From the buffet, having learnt the importance of eating well on tour, I loaded my plate with high protein foods.
While I ate, I contemplated what Pino had said the evening before about the Five Star Movement. He’d told us that unlike the centre-right parties, the movement supported remaining in the EU, but wanted to revise the terms of Italy’s membership. This contradicted what I’d read, which categorised the party as anti-establishment, environmentalist and Eurosceptic. Pino was just one man, held one point of view, but this inconsistency and the coverage I’d read in the British media troubled me (I did not know then about the party’s troublesome stance on immigration or the u-turn it’s taken recently in an attempt to engage with a wider electorate). Plus there were the changes to electoral law he’d mentioned, which intentionally penalised the party. There in the hotel restaurant, in unfamiliar surroundings, the deception seemed obvious. Established institutions such as the media, politicians – the old guard – were purposefully misrepresenting the movement to diminish its significance and appeal. The failings of western democracy suddenly seemed illuminatingly obvious and why claims regarding the production of 'fake news' have been so persuasive.
In my notebook, I also wrote down my feelings about the trip. I was nervous and excited about cycling into the unknown. Feeling vulnerable and anxious is a standard of bike touring, but the repeated warnings of thieves in the South, and of dogs, had been unsettling. I tried to reassure myself. I knew that while we were on the road we could rely on our experience and instinct. I told myself it would be necessary to assess every new situation with discernment, but without prejudice, and that it was important not to give in to fear.
After breakfast we unpacked and reassembled the bikes. This was straightforward compared to the earlier ordeal of taking the pedals off, and we were soon ready. Our plan was to take the shuttle bus into Rome, then catch a train out the other side, to avoid cycling through the city. Our hope was to be on the road by two.
While we waited for the bus in the hotel car park, Becky and I rode around checking the bikes. I’ve had mine for fifteen years and had it serviced before we left. But now my gears were slipping and the back brake didn’t seem to be working. Unwilling to set off without checking the bikes more thoroughly first, we agreed to stop at Senza Freni, one of the bike shops we’d visited the day before.
Once again we were dropped off by the Colosseum. We pushed the bikes through the crowds and hawkers. I watched the military guards, as Becky neared, viewing her with suspicion and then relaxing, after deciding she wasn’t a threat. We cycled along Via dei Fori Imperiali for a mile or so, enjoying the freedom and sense of being on the road, and then dismounted again at Piazza Venezia.
The road narrowed. We pushed the bikes past packed sandwich shops, a perfumery, good-looking men in fine clothes. In the autumn light, the stone buildings looked exquisite.
On Via dei Leutari, as we neared the bike shop, we came across the same group of elderly men playing cards we’d seen the day before.
‘Back to see us again so soon?’ called one of the men cheerfully.
I stopped and grinned.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked then spying my camera added, ‘Do you want to take our picture?’
‘Yes please!’ I said, to his surprise.
Afterwards I told him I lived in London.
‘I used to live in London,’ he exclaimed. ‘My children were born there, in the hospital at Marylebone,’ he said importantly. ‘What are you doing in Rome? Are you here to see the ancient sites?’
I explained we were cycling to Brindisi, asking people how they felt about Europe, and handed him one of my new cards.
‘I can tell you all about Italian history,’ he offered, turning it over in his hand, ‘about the mighty Roman Empire.’ When I explained we were heading to Athens he seemed amused.
‘Well of course, there in Athens, there was once another great civilisation. Not as impressive as Rome of course, but it has its history. You know Rome is built around the ancient monuments – if you want to know more, email me, I can tell you all you need to know,’ he said, and winked.
By now the others had gone on to the bike shop. There, by chance and good fortune, they’d met a man who’d cycled the same route that summer. Wearing cycle helmet and gloves, he was talking animatedly, about the places he’d visited. While the owner checked my bike, the others crowded around the man’s phone looking at his pictures.
‘Here are the white town’s of the South,’ I heard him saying. ‘Locorotondo, Cisternino, Ostuni.’ I watched Matt 1 note down the places he mentioned. Afterwards they told me he’d also spoken of Roman roads, an aqueduct, beautiful landscapes and an ancient place called Matera.
By then it was nearly lunchtime. The old men next door had moved inside. The owner, who had fixed my bike, seemed keen to close. Feeling inspired and more eager to begin, we thanked both men enthusiastically and set off determinedly on our way.
We had 30 minutes to catch the train. Looking back now I have no idea why we didn’t ride to the station. Instead we hurriedly pushed the bikes back along the road, passed the homeless couple and then sweated our way up the hill towards Roma Termini. With ten minutes to go before the train left, we realised we weren’t going to make it and so instead stopped for lunch at a fantastic-looking sandwich shop.
Afterwards, near the station, the streets were bustling with people, taxis and cars. At the entrance stood groups of migrants, mainly Africans, talking and smoking. Inside, the station was frantic. Searching for the ticket office, we wheeled our bikes towards the platforms, then back past bars and cafés through commuters and tourists. I felt nervous. Feared we might be robbed, but then relaxed once I became accustomed to the noise and activity and sensed there wasn’t any threat.
When we found the ticket office for the right train company, we had to wait. Ticket in hand, there seemed no logic to the numbers called. When our turn came, Matt 1 stepped up to the counter. There he was told we couldn’t take the bikes on the next train and we’d have to wait a few hours more.
Matt 1 returned, looking serious, to discuss our options.
‘Well we could cycle out of the city, along the river.’ Becky suggested. ‘According to the man at the bike shop the route is quiet and shouldn’t take long.’
‘I’d be up for it,’ I offered.
But looking at Matt 1 I could see he wasn’t keen, he’d said earlier he didn’t want to cycle through Rome, and so added, ‘but I think we should take the train.’
Our decision made, having already delayed for lunch, there was no hope of getting on the bikes that day. I felt the adrenalin, which had been pumping through my body since morning seep away. I was suddenly deflated and felt totally exhausted. Matt 1 took another ticket and reluctantly returned to the queue to wait his turn at the ticket office once again.
By the time we reached Valmontone it was dark. We were unsure of the way to our accommodation, and leading I cycled off in the wrong direction, towards the old town up a steep and sudden hill.
After straining our way towards the summit, the first time we’d ridden the bikes fully loaded, we cycled around the attractive centre before heading down the hill once more. We followed the road under the railway line, then gingerly made our way up a dark and fast road through the evening traffic. Amongst rows of modern apartment buildings we searched for Reggio del Solei for twenty minutes.
Eventually we found it. There, in a small shed next to the apartment building was the owner. Inside the air was stale and full of smoke. The man, on the phone beckoned us in. He was wearing an expensive-looking blue jacket, blue shirt and trousers. Casually he checked us in, photocopying our passports.
Later that night we ate in a restaurant he’d recommended. Another football game was on, and all the tables were full. In the apartment beforehand we’d long debated whether to return to the old town, where I’d booked a table in a traditional-looking restaurant, but in the end we elected to stay close by. The walk towards the restaurant in the fog, next to the motorway, with lorries rushing by, served only to accentuate my despondency and the sinking feeling I had that if we were going to complete the tour ahead we were going to have to try a little harder.
 See the opinion piece ‘What is populism?’ for more in depth investigation into populism across Europe and information about the Five Star Movement