Italy Day 1: Rome to Athens
It was unseasonably warm. In the departure lounge, we watched as the cloud gathered and thickened. By the time the flight was called, the sun was completely obscured. Dust particles from the Azores, carried by Storm Ophelia, had gathered high in the atmosphere muddying the sky. On the tarmac the wind blew. As I climbed the steps to the plane, I tried to avoid interpreting the apocalyptic scene as an omen. Told myself the plane would not take off if we were in any danger and while we waited I distracted myself by examining the insalubrious snack menu.
That morning we’d disassembled the bikes and packed them into boxes. Preparations for the trip had begun weeks before. My new lightweight tent, as well as essential bike tools, sleeping bag, maps, warm clothes, optimistically my bikini, camera, films, notepad and pens had all been carefully packed into my panniers the week before. Prioritising speed over personal comfort, I’d revised my gear ruthlessly extracting anything I deemed now from experience as unessential including spare t-shirts, shorts, knickers and socks. My priority, to reduce the weight of the bike.
We were flying to Rome to begin the tour. My companions were Matt 1 again, and Becky a friend from Falmouth. Before our departure communication had been sparse and as we sat in a café looking out on the overcast runway, Becky had said:
‘Tell me again, how did you choose the route?’
I explained that originally I’d wanted to cycle across Romania. To find out how those living in one of the EU’s newest states felt about accession, but had been put off by anecdotes of attacks by wild dogs. So instead I’d settled on Southern Italy and Greece. My idea was to follow the provisional Eurovelo 5 route from Rome to Brindisi where we would catch a ferry to Patras and then cycle on to Athens. This I knew would offer the chance to observe the effects of the financial crisis, austerity and the refugee crisis first hand. I also hoped it would provide the opportunity to investigate the EU’s influence more critically, informed by the experiences of those living on the southern fringes of the continent.
I told the others the little I’d been able to discover about the route. How we would be following ancient roman roads and parts of a pilgrimage route from Rome to Jerusalem. How we would be travelling through mountain ranges and tiers of Italian history. In my mind I had a vague notion of the synergy of cycling from one ancient civilisation to another. And I hoped, given the wisdom of those fallen empires is still so deeply embedded in the political, cultural and literary traditions of the western world, that those once great metropolises would reveal new insights into Europe’s most recent crisis.
It was night when we landed in Rome. On the plane Becky had sat next to an Italian man returning from visiting his girlfriend in London. While we waited for our baggage, she told us he had warned her against cycling in Southern Italy, explaining the drivers there weren’t used to cyclists and recommended we head to Tuscany instead. We considered this. Wondered if we could catch a ferry to Greece from Venice instead, but then already resolved we dismissed the idea.
Once we’d loaded two trollies with the bikes and our belongings we pushed them towards the taxi rank. Outside in the still warm night a man in a red tie approached us. He offered us a ride for 50 Euros. Thinking we were being ripped off we declined. Only to discover they were charging 60 at the official taxi rank. We pushed the unwieldy boxes up and down curbs, from driver to driver, until a deal was struck no worse than the original offer.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at our hotel, positioned between Rome and the sea. After checking in and dragging the bike boxes to a cramped room made up for three, we headed to the hotel restaurant. There we ordered, as suggested by Becky’s Italian, Cacio e Pepe a simple Roman pasta dish of spaghetti, cheese and pepper and three glasses of red wine. Relieved to have finally reached our first destination, giggling we practiced our limited Italian on the obliging waitress, and after finishing our first course, Matt 1 ordered Tiramisu only to discover they had sold out.