the italian job


Rural Italy is beautiful.  Beautiful and tough when you’re on a kick scooter.  Much like many of my adventures I’m quite blasé about how challenging it’s going to be.  This was no exception!
Loaded up with rucksacks for a largely self-sufficient ten days, my younger brother Tom and I set off from Turin with the aim of following the mighty River Po and the European Cycle path - Eurovelo 8.  This proved a lot tougher than we imagined!  In fact the Po was rarely glimpsed during our first few days!
After struggling to get out of Turin itself we finally felt as though we were on our way.  If only we knew!
That first day was a baptism of fire in that we were to realise that the Eurovelo didn’t really exist this West.  Not only that but the route didn’t really follow the Po.  If it did then the path wasn’t suitable for kick scooters.  It wasn’t long before we were resorting to roads.  The navigation wasn’t simple – or direct!  On that first day we clocked up 42 miles on our superb Razor A5 Air scooters that were kindly given to us by Razor Wordlwide, finally coming to a rest in the village of Palazzolo Vercellese.  Here we sat and savoured a beer while the locals stole quizzical glances at these two English lads with kids scooters and filthy capes.  Mine was particularly filthy because, true to Butler form, I’d hit a mud slide and hit the ground, caking myself in mud and smashing my mobile phone.
The barman directed us to a kids play area a mile into the small forest close to the river.  It seemed like the perfect place to camp… it would have been had it not been for the mosquitoes.  To save weight we only had a tarp so our ‘tent’ was open to the world… and the mosquitoes.  That first night sucked.  We used our capes as mosquito nets and I was lucky, sustaining only the one bite.  Tom however was not so lucky.  He was covered head to toe in bites.
Day two was much the same with the tough navigation and terrible stony paths.  We crossed the river for the first time, taking to the south bank at Casale Monferrato.  We finished with a soul-destroying loop back to the town of Valenza where we downed greasy pizza after another 42 mile day of scooting.  A Wild camp beckoned with the only campsite being miles out of our way.  It turned out the spot we chose was one of the best we had.  Right by the river where we could watch the stunning sunset and no need for the tarp because we’d found a concrete shelter that was thankfully devoid of bugs!
This was also a turning point in the journey for Tom.  Mentally and physically he had found the first two days exhausting.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d found it tough going but I guess my ‘experience’ told me that it’d get easier and I pep talked Tom as best I could.  To his massive credit my sibling awoke on day three with a brand new attitude.  He WOULD do this.  Let’s get on with it!!

Day three was another slog battling gravel paths, flies, the heat and a continued lack of signage.  Most notable however was the first real hiccup with the scooters.  My rear tyre had developed a rather large bulge where the rubber had worn too thin.  Now I was ready for the ridicule back home but we had spare inner tubes, bearings, nuts and axles…. But we had decided against spare tyres based on the fact that they looked so tough AND there was a lack of space in our bags.
As luck would have it we limped the five miles to a Decathlon store who stocked spare wheels… only they didn’t have any!  They did however have a solid wheel for sale.  Needs must.  It was smaller, leaving less ground clearance, noisy and it vibrated a lot but we were moving again!  Until that is when Tom got a puncture within a mile of getting going again!
But the day ended on a high; a shower!  We had reached the beautiful city of Pavia, crossing the stunning Ponte Coperto bridge which arches majestically over the Ticino river.  This brick-built bridge with five arches also houses a chapel and was a hive of activity.  We made it to our first campsite and had a proper meal.  We were in a good place after yet another 42 miles. We were falling short of the 50 that we wanted to achieve but due to the navigational issues we just hadn’t managed it.  We hoped that we could make up the miles when the proper paths began.

Day four represented a huge false dawn, much like a false summit.  We celebrated when we thought we had found the beginning of the proper Eurovelo 8 tarmac delight.  It wasn’t. It didn’t last long.  We pushed on to the city of Piacenza where we regrouped with more pizza and a beer.  There was yet again no campsite so we found a small supermarket and headed out of the city and continued.  We’d covered a huge 54 miles and found a small ‘beach’ by the river bank where we set up camp and cooked our evening meal.  It was comfy but we shared the night with a lot of bugs.

Day five started with an actual river path even if it was intermittent smooth and rough surfaces.  This was particularly tough on my scooter with the hard rear wheel but we plugged on. Reaching lunchtime – siesta time – often proved difficult.  Scooting into a village we were gasping for a drink of water.  We had my LifeStraw bottle that enabled us to drink from any water source no matter how filthy, but there just wasn’t anywhere to fill it up!  We hoped the bars would be open, full of locals enjoying a lunchtime drink.  Nothing. Nada.  I approached a teacher supervising a school break time and asked “Fontana?” She pointed us in the direction of a supposed fountain.  What a fountain!  This thing dispensed 500 ml shots of ice cold water.  Not only that but you could choose sparkling water!  What a find! 
This was to be a short mileage day at only 25 miles for when disaster struck we were lucky to be able to continue.  This time it was Tom’s rear wheel that had a bulge.  We managed to hold the tyre together with lashings of KT tape and limped to the city of Cremona.  We realized what was happening now – The use of the brake coupled with the fact that the tyres were inflated to the max meant we were wearing them thin.  Lesson learned!  We were however, in a pickle.  Razor were trying to source spare tyres, but we took matters into our own hands.
Cremona had a campsite, so we set up, showered and headed to a bike shop in the vain hope that they stocked what we needed… they didn’t.  They did direct us to a scooter shop across town though.  This place seemed to stock everything and praise be, they had a solution.  Turns out NHS wheelchair tyres are the same size!!  We purchased four of the buggers and decided that on that win for team caped brothers we would call it a day for scooting, have a well-earned rest.  We fixed up the scooters and ate the BIGGEST pizzas you’d ever seen! We briefly felt as though we were on holiday!
Day six started with gusto as all sources pointed to the fact that this truly was where the proper path started. On we scooted, NHS nylon tyres doing the trick nicely.  At lunch we pulled into a small village that looked deserted.  Tentatively we pushed open the door to a seemingly closed restaurant to find a living room come bar and the friendliest woman so far.  We sat in their garden/restaurant and enjoyed fresh homemade pasta.  Bliss.
It was always going to be a long day as google promised us a campsite that we pushed for.  Exhausted after 57 miles we pulled up at the spot in mention.  NO CAMPSITE!  At this point we were both shattered and little (I say little, it didn’t seem it at the time) setbacks felt soul destroying.  We dragged our backsides back to the previous village of Villastrada and sat in a bar ‘garden’ and sunk a few beers.  We asked around about a campsite but alas there really wasn’t one.  It was looking like a trip backwards (which we were NOT doing) according to a local who spoke broken English.  Then the owner came out and beckoned us to the rear of the bar.  The long and short of it was we were allowed to string up our tarp in the concrete yard!  It was a proper lesson in adventure travel for Tom!  Desperate low to BOOM!  Sorted.  Pizza and beer to refuel and then mistakenly we stayed up to 1am talking to our new friends and drinking Grappa!
It was just another fortuitous break in yet another small village that just didn’t get Englishmen passing through, let alone idiots on scooters and wearing capes!
   



 






 
Not unsurprisingly we awoke with sore heads and downed our coffees.  The paths continued to follow the river and were of excellent quality.  Things were going well apart from the 10 mile diversion that took us all the way back (painfully) back to the non-existent campsite.  By this time though we were made of tougher stuff and sucked it up and moved on.  We crossed bridges made up of tied together boats on our way to stopping for a mid-morning coffee and sandwich.  It actually turned out to be some alcoholic drink even though I’d asked for two Americanos!  Oh well, hair of the dog!
On we went and by half past three we’d done thirty five miles.  The path at times was awful, but we were doing well, crossing the river to take the south path once again, full of smiles.  Then it happened.  I’m not sure what actually occurred, whether my hand slipped or I hit a stone, but before I knew it I was in the air.  My hands didn’t come up quick enough and I face planted the concrete! BAM!  Christ on a scooter it hurt!!  I half rolled to a stop and immediately knew I’d done some damage.  The blood was in my eyes and I just sat for a minute, keeping pressure on the wound, waiting for the initial wave of pain to ebb away.
Tom hastily got the first aid kit out and we stemmed the bleeding.  I knew from using the camera phone that I needed stitches.  Shit.  I had a lovely gash above my left eye.
We scooted the 2 miles to the next village and sought out the pharmacy… that was shut.  Luck would have it that a delivery driver arrived and pointed at a building a mere 500 yards away.  “That is the hospital” he said
“No way!  Here!?”  I replied, incredulous.
“Yes, Big hospital”
WOW.
I was in and out within an hour, cleaned and stitched up.  I found Tom fast asleep.  “Come on son!  We’ve got a campsite to reach!”
I think I was the first Englishman to ever set foot in that hospital of the tiny village of Pieve di Coriano.  It turned out to be our highest mileage day at a whopping sixty-three miles!  My head throbbed as soon as the anaesthetic wore off so I was thrilled to arrive at the campsite around half 8 at night.  ‘Fireflies in the fog’ campsite was a gem and we were welcomed by the owner’s son who spoke excellent English and thankfully had cold beers to hand!  Result.  We were shattered and my head pounded but we had finished for the day.
I scooted into the village, Stellata to grab pizzas and chatted to a local who wanted my picture and offered me his bicycle helmet.  He kindly dropped me back at the campsite in his car and we sat and ate while the owner’s son practiced with his jazz band.  What. A.  Day.

Day eight.  We were really starting to feel it now.  Tired and patched up.  Tom was managing his tight hamstring and his blistered feet while I had, you know, a smashed face and vision out of only one eye!
That being said I was looking forward to a slight deviation into the city of Ferrara, a so called Italian cycling mecca.  The route there was a nice change from the exposed river path.  Here we had tree cover giving us much needed shade.  As it turned out Ferrara wasn’t anything special and we soon passed through. 
Eventually we stopped late afternoon for a few ice lollies and bumped into our now friend Thomas for the umpteenth time!  We’d seen the Swiss cyclist at two campsites, in a restaurant and out on the paths and here he was cycling into our lives once again!
We went our separate ways; he was looking for a campsite (I’m not sure there was one) and we crossed back over the river to Polsella and continued our scoot.  The day was largely uneventful and as the day drew to a close we entered yet another village where we were stared at (in a friendly, curious way) and drunk yet more great beer.  Once again, the only food option was pizza which we took to a little local’s picnic area down by the river outside of Crespino where we made camp.  It was a great spot and we slept soundly after another long day scooting 37 miles.
Day nine was shorter than we expected at just 34 miles as we approached Chioggia which denoted the end of the mainland.  It was simple if stifling hot going.  I think our bodies knew we were close to the end, each of us finding the going tough.  We had to navigate some busy roads at times which wasn’t ideal but we finally made it to Chioggia mid-afternoon.  The only thing we faced was choosing which campsite to stay in!
Or so we thought.
Oh no, it seems after the lack of campsites, Chioggia had a monopoly on them!  It seemed like the whole of Italy had turned up!  Site after site turned us away saying that they were full.  We couldn’t believe it.  In fact it was the very last site that could make space for us!  After the rural and oh so quiet previous eight days, we found ourselves in a beach resort where the campsites were more like little villages where people seemed to have set up for the whole month!  Caravans with porches and televisions for crying out loud.  We didn’t like it.  Too many people and the pizza cost twice as much but didn’t taste twice as good.  It reminded me of my arrival in Sunnybeach at the end of the cycle in 2015.  Waaay too busy and tacky.  Such a shame after all the glorious scenery and quaint villages with their ornate architecture and cobbled squares that we had passed through. 
But at the end of the day we managed to hand wash our clothes and had a place to sleep.  What’s more the next day would be our last on the road!
Day ten was kinda cool.  We had to island hop up the peninsula to the lido that was opposite Venice itself.  Ferry – Island- Ferry – Island – Ferry – Venice. These were beautiful and intriguing islands, the first of which started with just a path and a wall with the sea either side.  We took our time, enjoying the last few miles.  Soaking up the scenery and quietly trying to take it all in before we entered the hustle and bustle of Venice.
We were all smiles as we caught the last ferry to St Marks and posed for photos.  We’d hit the 422-mile mark on the nose, finishing with a 21-mile day just like we’d said we would.  As with any adventure the emotions are mixed.  Ecstatic that the hard work was over, yet it was tinged with sadness that the adventure was over.  We’d raised over £1200 for Crohns and Colitis UK and put ourselves through a lot of physical hardship.
But it had been a great bonding experience for two brothers.  I hope Tom got a lot out of it and I think he did.  Who knows, this could be the first of many for him.  I was really proud of how he’d pulled through from the first couple of tough days to prove to himself if nothing else that he was – is more than capable.

For me it’s the same old question.

                                              What’s next?!