Laughing With The Locals

Saturday, September 26

Down the stairs we went, bags dangling and banging against us, hanging from shoulders and arms as we resumed our secondary personas as pack horses. The bikes were waiting for us in their position under the stairs, we loaded up and headed out of Mantova. People were out and about for their Saturday morning coffee at the street-side cafes and we pedalled past, along the road and then into some cycle lanes beside the traffic. Speaking of coffee, there aren’t many fast food places here, we see the occasional McDonalds, but they aren’t common. The one place we haven’t seen anywhere we’ve been in Italy though, is Starbucks. They’ve been everywhere in other countries, but not a single one to be seen here. Italy obviously has such strong coffee traditions and prides itself on its coffee, that it wouldn’t dare allow something like Starbucks to open its doors and offer its inferior version of their prized brew. I think that’s really interesting and goes to show that the big boys don’t have to run the town.

As we rolled out of town, we looked back at the city and saw its scenic skyline, then along another cycle lane beside the busy road.

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We see quite a few people on bikes here, going about their business, using the bike as their form of transport and it’s great. This morning I saw a girl on her bike, dinking an older lady behind. The lady sat side saddle on the rack behind the seat, her silver hair up in a bun and chatting away to the girl pedalling. I also loved seeing two girls, one riding with her friend sitting side saddle on the cross bar in front of the seat. The girl riding said something to her friend, began looking for something in her bag and the girl on the cross bar just took over the handlebars and kept steering, while her friend pedalled and rummaged in her bag. It was such smooth team work! In another town, we rode along the cobbled streets, with people on their bikes getting groceries or off on errands or visits, and I rode past a lady on her bike, with her arm in a plaster cast. I reckon a lot of people at home would think if their arm was in plaster, they’d give the bike a miss and resort to another form of transport, but not this lady, she still used her bike and rode along one handed. It’s all fantastic to see.

We headed onto a cycle route and a really nice path through trees and along an art trail. There were various sculptures in the trees and it was nice to find some nature and scenery so close to the city. We soon pedalled through the outskirts of Mantova and into Porto Mantovano, where we stopped at a bakery to collect some elevenses for Steve. He went in to make his selection and told the lady serving that he didn’t speak Italian. She called over another lady and told her that the man she was about to serve didn’t speak Italian. This second lady looked quite pleased.

“Ah, Inglese! I practise Inglese!” 

When the man standing beside Steve heard him say he spoke English, he turned to Steve and said, “The book is on the table.” 

We laughed at that and the man laughed. How gorgeous. He had obviously remembered one of those typical, inapplicable phrases that seem to be taught in language class, but now he had found a moment when he could use it! “The book is on the table.” Love it! Steve made his selection in that jovial atmosphere and we were off.

Along the road we went, out into the countryside. We were on roads most of the ride, but they stayed fairly quiet, which was good because they were only single lane width and we had to pull over a couple of times to let harvesters squeeze past us. We found a spot for elevenses in Grezzano and sat on the steps of the church. Steve tucked into his bakery delights while I worked my way through a punnet of tomatoes and we had a leisurely break under the cloudy sky, but in the warm air.

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Our elevenses spot
Elevenses
Elevenses

The building across the road was huge and grand looking but, like so many buildings we see, run down and dilapidated and seemingly abandoned. We tried to guess what it could have been, because it was so big, like a government building, or a hospital, or maybe just a grand manor house. We don’t know, but we wonder why so many buildings and towns are so run down or left to decay. It was still a striking looking building, but it would have been quite grand in its heyday.

We aren't sure what this building would have been, but it's impressive
We’re not sure what this building would have been, but it’s impressive

Through the country we pedalled, passing farmland and orchards of peaches and kiwi fruit. Lots and lots of kiwi fruit, hanging in abundance off the vines. We saw a castle as we rode into a small town and took a slight detour to have a look. There was a wedding going on in the front of the castle and a small market in operation. As we walked past the market, I saw a stall with a huge pile of sundried tomatoes.

“I’m going to try and get us some of those,” I said to Steve. So I set off to practise my blend of verbal and non-verbal communication. I began with the script, apologising to the lady at the stall, for not speaking Italian and saying I spoke English. She didn’t speak any English, so I pointed to the tomatoes and she picked up a bag and then swept up an armload, and I mean, an ARMLOAD of tomatoes and looked at me. I gestured for a few less than that! She offloaded some and looked at me, I gestured for still a few less than that, until we were down to a couple of handfuls. As she was gathering the tomatoes, she gave me one of the olives, she was also selling, to try. Oh my! It was sublime! It was the most delicious explosion of fruit in my mouth, a mixture of salty and sweet and mild, smooth, deliciousness. That olive was ambrosia! I put my hand on my heart and went weak at the knees, to show her how delicious it was and she laughed. When she passed me the tomatoes, she gestured to the olives, asking if I would like some. I expressed my disappointment saying, “Bicicletta, I can’t carry them.” So I walked off with my bag of sundried tomatoes, found Steve and we both sampled them before getting ready to pedal off. I told Steve about the amazing olive and as we were about to leave, I thought, ‘what the hey, we’re in Italy, we have to eat the olives! I’ll find room for them.’ So we walked the bikes past the stall again, the lady saw me coming and stood up and I just pointed to the tray of olives that I had just sampled. She smiled, picked up a scoop and then offered me a different one to try, as she was scooping up the ones I’d asked for. This one she offered, looked just like the ones I eat at home, only huge.

Piquant,” she said, “spicy.” I loved it and she offered one to Steve, who I wasn’t expecting to like it, which he didn’t. A bit too salty for him. I tried to ask her the name of the variety, because I had a complete brain freeze as to the name of the ones I eat.

“What’s the name of this one?” I asked.

“Piquant, spicy,” she repeated again.

“What’s the variety? The name? The tree?” I asked again, trying to think of any way of communicating what I was asking, but I couldn’t get it right.

She called over a young man from another stall, who spoke a little English and asked him.

“They are noir, black,” he said.

“Yes, but I’m wondering what the name of them is?”

Well, I still couldn’t communicate well enough to have my question understood, so I gave up and just let the lady keep scooping up the olives I’d asked for. Then it finally came to me and I remembered the variety that I buy at home.

Kalamata?” I asked her, pointing to the dark olives.

“Ah, brava, brava,” she laughed, “si, si.” So we got there in the end! It was another memorable moment, like Steve’s bakery experience, when we just get in there and blunder along, trying to communicate with the locals. It’s hard, but it’s fun and it’s so nice of them to be so patient with us as we try!

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The taste buds were singing an Aria!
The taste buds were singing an Aria!

After some more riding through the countryside, along the back roads, we made it to Verona, our pitstop for the day. We saw a bench in a park and stopped for lunch, before heading on to our campsite. Yes…campsite! I dived into the bag of olives, that I’d managed to squeeze into a pannier, and offered one to Steve, thinking he’d like this one because it was so much milder than the Kalamata. Verdict? “A lot nicer than the other one,” he said. So we sat, in Italy, in one of its most famous cities, eating olives bought from the producer at a small town market. That’s what it’s all about.

We began psyching ourselves up for the ride to the campsite. The reviews had described it as “sitting high up on the hills overlooking Verona with spectacular views of the city.” There were two words there that immediately lit up in neon…high…and hills! We haven’t really had to face any hills since leaving England, so we wondered if our legs had become a bit unconditioned to climbing. Steve looked up the route on the map, to see what the hill looked like and the map showed the road snaking up it, in tight curves. This doesn’t look good! It must be so steep that cars have to wind their way up it! We don’t know if we can do this. Time to find out. Off we went and the incline appeared. I decided to be the team cheerleader.

“Here we go,” I shouted, “we can do this! Strong legs! Come on bikes! We can do this!” Heaven only knows what passing pedestrians and tourists must have thought as these two cyclists on ‘wide-load’ bikes went past with the lady shouting strange phrases! On we went and up we went. The road did indeed wind and snake its way up that hill, but in the end it was a case of  “hill-schmill”! It wasn’t so bad at all and didn’t take too much effort to get up. It was a good return to some climbing, without being lung busting or leg killing steep.

The campsite is located inside castle walls and we were given a pitch, underneath grape vines, near a terrace, that overlooks the city. The view was magic. We boiled the kettle and then sat on the terrace in the sun, looking down at the rooftops, bridges, river and grand buildings of Verona.

“This is a trip highlight, right here,” declared Steve.

Setting up under the vines
Setting up under the vines
A cuppa...
A cuppa…
...with a view
…with a view

It was late in the day, so we decided not to do too much roaming and just head down the hill to get supplies. As we walked across the bridge, there was a virtual queue of brides and grooms having their photos taken. We walked through the cobbled streets and beside the river, gathered some supplies, then strolled back, past the cafes and ristorantes, back up the hill to camp, where we prepared a tasty feast for ourselves.

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Our view by night
Our view by night

The campsite soon came alive, with live music. We could hear it from our pitch, a lady singing with piano accordion accompaniment. It was like having our own little private Eurovision!  We sat in the tent and listened and then…what a surprise…it started raining! Heavy rain! We have been in Italy for a week and a half and camped twice and both times it’s rained! We didn’t get a storm this time, but it was big rain!

It was a terrific day. We rode 58km, mixed with the locals, continued our attempts to communicate, sampled local produce, saw some countryside and found ourselves in a castle, overlooking Verona. We also have some other touring cyclists camped beside us and I got chatting to one man, from Ireland, who’s on his way to Croatia. He asked what sort of weather we’d been having. Hmmm, not the best question! He said he’d ridden through the Alps and faced snow.

No,” he said, “not happening! I got the first train out of there!” We could understand!

We’ll spend another day here and take the time to roam and explore the city. It will be a Go-Slow-Sunday as we give the pedals a rest for the day and take to our feet instead. Time to wind our way through the back streets, amble along the cobbles, linger in the lanes, stroll the streets and roam the river. The Verona vistas await!

Sunday, September 27

But soft, what light through yonder nylon breaks? ’Tis the East and that darn electric light out there is as bright as the sun! I did not feel particularly Juliet style sunny and fair at 4:18 this morning when I woke and couldn’t go back to sleep, so up I got and ventured up a dark path to the bathroom block. This also, was not a pleasant experience. After being so keen to get back to camping, the site we are at, despite having a very nice view, leaves a lot to be desired and I’ll actually be very glad to leave. I won’t go into details, I’ll just say three words. Bathrooms. Toilets. Hygiene. I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks.

After an early dawn bathroom experience, I sat in  the campsite’s common room for a few hours, to give Steve some extra sleep, before venturing back to the tent. We breakfasted on the terrace, attempted to do some laundry, only to be told it would be a two hour wait for the one machine on offer, so that was no longer an option, since there were no dryers and nothing would get dry on the cloudy, chilly day we had if it wasn’t done first thing. So with the housekeeping put on hold, we set off down the hill to explore Verona.

The streets were a sea of tourists, like us, so we dodged and weaved and forged our way through the crowds. The city itself is beautiful. The buildings and bridges and the river, all make for a magical scene, with the cobbled streets and lane ways adding to the charm. We strolled into the Basilica and happened to enter just as Sunday Mass was concluding. We heard the final words from the priest and the simultaneous chorus of responses from those in attendance, as we quietly joined the other onlookers and gazed at the grand interior and images on the walls and ceiling. I always think it must be such a bummer for the locals, for whom this is their regular Sunday service, and they find it cluttered up with tourists coming and going!

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We continued strolling and enjoying taking in the buildings and the atmosphere of this historic city.

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We made our way to Casa di Giulietta, the house that was supposedly the inspiration for the Capulet house in Romeo and Juliet and has the balcony that inspired the famous scene from Shakespeare’s play.

The world's most famous balcony!
The world’s most famous balcony!
A very popular place to visit!
A very popular place to visit!

On we went, roaming and wandering across to the Arena, a Roman amphitheatre built in the first century. It’s still used today for, among other things, large scale opera performances. I am constantly amazed that something this old can be preserved and still in use.

The Arena
The Arena

Lunch time was upon us and with our new Sunday tradition having begun, we went in search of a Ristorante Pizzeria. We found one that was vegan and got great reviews, so we walked a little out of the centre and found it tucked away down a side street, but busy and packed with patrons. We were shown a table and given a menu in English, so we were set to go. Steve had the seaweed ravioli with pine nuts and I had the eggplant gnocchi, which was very tasty. Being tradition day and having found a vegan eatery, we opted for dessert. Steve had the chocolate and beer cake and the lovely waitress was trying to describe the other cakes to us, but had trouble translating what they were. She was apologising and gesturing and trying to find the words and I didn’t want to make things any harder for her.

“It’s OK,” I said, “I’ll have one of the cakes and you choose for me. Surprise me!” 

What she brought was delicious, a combination of cake and pastry with a custard filling. She made a perfect choice for me.

We were now full of delicious food and the tradition had passed another Sunday, so we roamed a little more, beside the river and up into a castle, before collecting some supplies and heading back up the hill to camp. That was the day. A slow day. A Go-Slow-Sunday.

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We really liked Verona and its beautiful buildings and streets. Tomorrow we will leave yet another dodgy campsite behind us and head East, in the general direction of Venice. It will take us at least a couple of days to get there, but we’re looking forward to what we might see along the way. We’ve been to some well known cities and heading towards one of the most famous,  so we’re hoping to find some extra little hidden gems and places out of the spotlight as we go, in between the “celebrity cities”. We are still getting to know Italy. It is a country of contrasts that continues to surprise us and our expectations have been shifted and shaken in all manner of ways. We will continue our conversation each day, continue to get acquainted and continue to love the learning and discoveries that come our way. It’s all just layer, upon layer, upon layer of experiences and memories and we’ll pedal on to gather some more.

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