Italy Day 4: Valmontone to Aquino (86km)
Dawn had broken. The air was cold and the fields covered in dew. In the bakery, amongst the locals I queued silently. I’d expected croissants and patisseries but there were only biscuits and jam tarts. I bought a selection for breakfast, and a loaf of bread for lunch.
In the apartment we made coffee. The others ate the sickly treats politely. Afterwards we cycled towards the town, where we joined the main road, busy with morning traffic. The fog was thick and the road covered in potholes, but it was flat and I set off, out front, at a reasonable pace.
I was relieved finally to be on our way. We were riding through a wide valley close to the motorway. Behind the low cloud, lay distant hills. Winter was coming, but still there was the lingering fragrance of pine from the trees along the road. As I pedalled, my toes and fingers tingled in the cold. Lorries rattled past too close for comfort, and involuntarily I clenched my teeth and squeezed on the brakes as they overtook.
Soon we stopped. The start of our journey promised nothing of the relaxed pleasures of cycling along the canal paths of France and as a precaution, we attached and switched on our lights to make ourselves more obvious to the hurtling traffic behind us.
After an hour or more, in Osteria della Fontana we stopped at a delicatessen where I bought sheep and goat’s cheeses. After another hour, we had coffee on the outskirts of Ferentino. Now the sky was blue and there was warmth in the sun. We stripped down to bib shorts and vests and stayed there a while sunning ourselves, gazing at a quarry.
By midday, after losing Becky for a while, we reached Forsinone. There we started to climb up a winding road towards the old town, which sits upon a rocky peak. I was following Becky. As we turned around the bend and the road steepened, a car slowed behind me.
‘Olandese?’ came a gruff voice.
I turned around to see a greying officer in a police car. His eyes were on Becky, who tall and slim, with a mass of long blonde curls was struggling up the hill.
‘No Inglese,’ I replied between breaths.
The road was clear, but the car followed longer than necessary. When eventually they overtook, the officer called, ‘Good Morning! Good Journey,’ and saluted a wave. Nearing the top, we passed a school. Out of breath, our legs spent, we had to steer our way through the students and dodge the cars picking them up.
We dismounted near the funicular. Hot and weary, we stopped to admire the view. The new town sprawled below us, the mountains in the distance. Matt 1 agreed to guard the bikes while Becky and I searched for a shop selling fresh fruit. Only a bakery was open. Inside, we selected mini pizzas and hand-made chocolates from behind the glass counter. Behind this, a woman wearing red, her hair styled and make up flawless, was teasing a young colleague. Becky and I watched amused, while we waited to pay.
We ate hungrily, the sun warming our skin. Afterwards we returned to the bakery for a coffee. Another woman came to take our order. She spoke good English and I took the opportunity to ask her what she thought about Europe.
‘I don’t really know,’ she said apologetically.
She seemed embarrassed and I didn’t push her. Then, I admit my own feelings about Brexit and Europe were complicated. Since the summer I’d been trying to follow the negotiations but the bouts of posturing between Juncker, Barnier, Davies and Hammond, amongst others, in the run up to the next round of negotiations had been off putting. Their blustering seemed petty, while at home people feared for their jobs and neglected public services struggled on. Plus for the past few days I'd been focussed on working out the route and getting on the road and I'd hardly had time to think about Europe and the project. My own feelings seemed to reflect the woman's indifference.
The woman wearing red had finished her shift and came to join us. I asked her about Europe and the woman behind the bar translated. She didn’t mention Italy’s relationship with the European Union.
‘She says she’s been to London and Paris, but she liked London best.’
‘Yes.’ The woman in red nodded enthusiastically.
‘There it is very… cosmopolita. The people are very nice. There is unity. She says in Paris people are more, how do you say, more racist. Because of this she likes London more.’
I was surprised. Given Brexit, I’d not expected to be discussing the benefits of British multiculturalism. I’ve worked as an anti-racism campaigner and researched racisms explicit and subtler forms, but despite this, there, in the café I couldn’t help feeing proud. Since then, I’ve been trying to make sense of what she said. Over the last fifteen years the number of foreign nationals living in Italy has increased by 400%, and since 2012 the number of Africans arriving by boat has increased dramatically. Given this, it seems that the UK, and London in particular, with its imperfect but longer history of recent immigration must, from the outside, seem progressive.
The conversation moved on. The woman with glasses told us that she’d lived in California and felt that in America people were more polite and kinder than in Italy.
‘But the people we’ve met here have been so friendly.’ Becky interjected.
‘Well yeah, they seem hospitable and welcoming, but you don’t know what they are thinking.' She said tapping her head. 'Here it takes a long time to know the people, you have to be careful, they are not always so nice.’
I asked her if, when she lived in the US she had felt more European.
‘In the States I felt Italian not European.’
Next I asked them what they thought about the Five Star Movement.
The woman in red shook her head dismissively.
‘She says it is only words, a lot of talk but no substance.’ Afterwards, we thanked them, and generously they offered us our coffee on the house.
That afternoon, we cycled through the mountains with the gradient on our side. There was little traffic now and the road was quiet. As we raced on we passed elevated towns atop rocky hillsides and autumn trees, their leaves just turning. Just before Arce, we passed a young African walking along the roadside. On his back he was carrying a child’s pink rucksack with the words ‘hello kitty’ printed on the back. A little later we overtook a second African, also walking along the road. The two men were the only people we saw.
Soon after, as we rounded a corner, I spied a fruit and vegetable stall and gladly we stopped to buy freshly harvested grapes and apples. The sun was now low and the temperature beginning to cool. At a roadside bar, a little further on, we stopped for a drink and looked up somewhere to stay.
The dusk was long and we cycled on, racing the setting sun. It was nearly dark when we found our accommodation. When we arrived the gates were shut and there was no answer. As we were wondering what to do a car arrived. We followed it down the gravel driveway, past rows of vines, but the driver knew nothing of our stay. It was dark and cold now. We pulled on jackets, trousers, hats and gloves and waited on a garden swing huddled together.
After half an hour, a tall, thin man arrived. Becky spoke to him in French. He told us our host would be with us shortly and offered us some water. He bid us to sit on the veranda and tired and hungry, we ate the left overs from our lunch while we waited.
That evening the Italian man joined us. He was a runner and interested in our trip. He told us to be careful if we were heading to Naples. That a man who’d just completed a round the world cycle tour had had his bicycle stolen there.
We showed him the map, and Becky asked for recommendations of places to visit. He pointed out Cassino, where there had been a terrible battle during the Second World War. He told us the spa town Telese was worth a visit and that Solopaca produced good wine. But he warned us that we wouldn’t be able to ride along the 372, the main road to Benevento through the mountains. He said it was too dangerous. Matt pointed to the smaller roads, leading up and across the mountains and asked if we could take them instead. The man shook his head.
‘He says it’s too high and the roads are too steep, he says it will take too long.’ Becky translated. ‘He says we will have to get the train.’