With 2,585 km in the saddle and two train rides.
I have had several suggestions for a route home. Some people suggested Nice to Gatwick; my mother thinks use more trains; Rob suggested the south of France coast, through Spain and get a ferry (to be fair the distances were slightly less but there were the Pyrenees and it was a bit out of my comfort zone); Uncle Peter suggested I followed the Rhine and other rivers and canals as they are flat. I have chosen the most direct route and it is hilly in parts. This may be a decision I regret. Doing alright so far, I think I am over halfway home.
Things are different now, two reasons why there are fewer pics: There is a new focus to the trip now. Gone are the picturesque medieval villages and bridges, no more high Cols or spectacular ravines. Instead the focus is to get back to home as quickly as I can. I realised this as I left Ventimiglia and I found I couldn’t text, talk or video link with Kath without tears welling up and pouring down. See it is happening again. I had no idea that missing someone could hurt so much. And my cheap replacement phone tells me I don’t have enough memory to take pictures, so this is going to be a substandard blog from now on. I hope you understand and can forgive.
Well, you will be pleased to learn that Duncan’s on the road again, wearing the same old clothes again, Duncan’s back on those hills, trying to find his way home. Funny old day as it turns out. Shut up the Ventimiglia flat and set out at 8. Cycled up the river Roya to Tende where I planned to camp and tackle the Col de Tende (look it up to see how nuts I am!). Got to Tende by 11. 30 after climbing 700m in one go. At Tende the ‘Informations Touristiques femmes’ told me I needed a mountain bike and that I would have to carry the bike (and Bob) over the last section of the Col de Tende. She said there was an alternative route, a 50 km detour that she described as tough but beautiful. So I caught the train, promptly fell asleep and missed the stop I needed in order to continue the ride. So I stayed put all the way to Cuneo. The Alps are scarily stunning and it is nice to have them behind me, at least for the time being.
End of life planning: Not mine; but I were steeped in it over the week Ventimiglia. Don’t get me wrong, I have had a lovely week with my daughter Harriet, my sister Lucy and members of her family. I have had a good rest and chance to prepare myself, the bike and Bob for the trip home. I have also had to work, which included discussions about end of life planning. You need a bit of background.
Me and my family have been coming back to the same place in Ventimiglia since about 1969 when I was 12. The flat we stay in is on the third floor and is built into the medieval city wall on top of Ventimiglia Alta. It has a huge balcony that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. There is something about it that draws three generations of our family back.
Over the years we (Lucy inparticular) have become good friends with the owner Yvonne. Yvonne is 96 and in the last two years has been in poor health. She has been in nursing care and has hated it. Yvonne is a very independent minded person who quickly came into conflict with a very authoritarian regime that could not accommodate her. About two months ago Lucy offered to find her somewhere to live close to her in Abingdon. Yvonne, who is English, has jumped (well shuffled ponderously) at the idea. Her two surviving relatives, Yvonne’s sister and nephew have been appalled by the idea, accusing Lucy of putting her at serious risk of death. The proposition has the support of Yvonne’s friends however. This last week has been spent getting Yvonne ready for the trip (which could well be her last) and dealing with the very high levels of hostility from the relatives.
In the end it was clear that Yvonne has full mental capacty and understood the risks of traveling to England at this time. Perhaps she understood this was her last chance. We rode out the relatives hostility (they seem to have come around to the idea a bit) and off Yvonne went. The transformation in her presentation as we got things organised has been remarkable. Sticking to the principal that poor health does not necessarily mean older people can not make decisions for themselves felt more and more like the correct approach as the week went on, which I think is evident in the photo below, arriving at Gatwick airport, Yvonne wears a smile that tells it all.
Monday. Well it has been a day of ups and downs and I don’t mean the hills. On the contrary the ride from Cuneo to Turin is dead flat (and a little boring). However that was an up. I finished my 90 odd kms by lunchtime and arrived in Turin. Soon after I was blasted with a horn by two guys in a pickup truck. It turns out they were friends of Lucy. Antonio I had met only very briefly on Saturday, enough for him to recognise me and provide a very nice lunch at his, my second up. Down number one and two came in one horrible moment. Having cycled to the campsite on the outskirts of town I found it closed and I knew the nearest was a long way away. I also discovered that I had lost one of my panniers ! Gone completely. The one with all the important stuff, money, cards, passport. Panic mode. What do you do when you have nothing? So I retraced my ride about 9 kms and found it on a riverside path, untouched and with everything present. Another up.
With no campsite, I found a room in the Hotel Italia and had a very nice evening walking about the center with its big sqares, alleyways and trams. What a splendid place. Hope to come back sometime. So the evening ended on an up. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?
The next day brought more flatness, acres of sweetcorn and what looks like paddy fields, flooded fields growing a rice like crop. The Turin plane is full of water, it is a massive irrigation area. Perhaps it is no surprise, a number of black billed white birds all about me. A dozen or more rising into flight as I cycled past them. I think they were great egrets, they were definitely a magnificent sight. Also seen was a grey heron, and a stork landing in front of me on an electrcity pylon, doing its bill clatter just for me.
The ride finished back in the hills and a fabulous downhill approach to Como and the lake. All completed by 11.30am.
Confession time, I bottled the alps. It was the urge to get home and a fear of the unknown. I had planned to follow Euro Velo 8 but never found it. I also knew I was facing real mountains. So I caught the train(s) to Basel. But that is another story.
Know your limitations: The train journey from Como to Basel exposed one of my many limitations; to be able to think clearly in a crisis (or to make a mountain out of a molehill). Having got myself in the frame of mind to bottle the Alps all I had to do was get on a train. All went well for the first 20 minutes as I waited in the ticket desk queue. It went downhill from there for what seemed like forever. Queues. About 8 people in front of me, one desk only open and an automated ticket machine right there urging me to try it. I had seen a train to Basel due to leave in 30 minutes. I went for it and as I did the other desk opened and now there were two. Quite obviously the automated ticket machine did not mention bicicletta, why would it. I lost my place in the queue and the train left. I eventually got to a ticket sales person who spoke about as much English as I could speak Italian. He did manage to say this is not possible and I must go to Chiasso. The ticket, I discovered later cost €1.80. I am now in a fluster and pay be card, having no idea where Chiasso is or what I am to do when I get there.
Bob, the bike and me have to get to the platform in lifts no bigger than wheel chairs, Bob is severed from the bike and has to be carried in relays with the bike. The train had no designated place for bikes. There were no staff around to ask so I picked a coach and lifted bike in. As I did the doors closed with Bob still on the platform. There was no way to open the doors as far as I could see. So I ran up and down the train a bit until I spotted a handle low down on the door, I gave it a tug and all the doors opened. I got Bob on. Some minutes later an announcement was made that even I understood, would passengers please stop interfering with the doors as it has delayed the departure of the train. The journey lasted less than 10 minutes and the three of us were at Chiasso. In Switzerland.
There were no staff, no ticket office and no mention of Basel on the ticket machines. A quick google established there was no L’ufficio informazioni turistiche in Chiasso. What to do? My decision was to catch the next train back to Como and find the L’ufficio informazioni turistiche there, they have always been very helpful before. So the three of us were relayed on to the train. We were stood there in the entrance to the carriage going over things. I eventually reasoned that the ticket man in Como would know what he is talking about, after all railway staff know about trains. So my next decision was to disregard the first and get off the train. Bob first, then the doors closed. Bike and me on the train. Bob on the platform. Eat your heart out Basil Fawlty. How could that happen twice, what can it mean? This time I knew about the handle and gave it a tug. A few tugs later and the doors did open. I waved to the driver as we made a relayed sharp exit down the platform. I then spotted a young girl in a booth on the platform, video calling her boyfriend, she was able to tell me Basel trains go from platforms 7 and 14. From this and a bit of a google I worked out I needed a Zürich train, I chose the one on platform 14, bought a €47 ticket from the machine as I felt I needed to show I had tried to pay something. Relay procedure again in the lifts to get to 14.
Are you still with me? I know it is long but it was a long day. On platform 14 as the train pulls in a railway official asks for a bike reservation which I don’t have. I am told I am not allowed on the train. Although reluctant at first the official did tell me I needed the next train from platform 7 and change at Laguna. Relay number 3. We all got on the train without any of us being left on the platform.
Laguna turns out to be a modern station, easy to get around with a Bob and a bike; and most importantly with helpful staff in the ticket office who could speak English. So armed with three tickets and three reservations we boarded the correct train. We had to change at Zürich with only 8 minutes to make the fourth and final connection. Surely nothing could go wrong again? The train was three minutes late and I missed the connection. Still there was another train in 45 minutes and the tickets were valid. I got to Basel camping after 9 in the evening, the camping office was closed. I got in and pitched the tent in any case.
The 20 minutes it took to ride to Basel camping were very special. The route took me through the town along the banks of the Rhine. There was some sort of swimming festival going on and the streets were full off party people in swimming costumes eating drinking and having a great time.
Much of the ride since Basel has been on the banks of canals and rivers. Peter is right they are flat and it is possible to eat the kilometres. I have had one day of hills around Bitche, which were hard. I can see I have more to come. In the meantime I am going to enjoy a bottle of wine (sorry Mum) in a German campsite once I get this sent off.