Our plan for our Explorer Belt expedition started fairly simply: Cycle the entire length of Italy. We quickly came to realize that this was a little beyond our ten-day range, so we came up with the plan to compare northern and southern Italy by going from Bari in the south to Venice in the north. It was still a big aim so we knew we might need the help of public transport to make the distance in the 10 days we had. We hoped that this would give us a good breadth of culture and landscape, despite our whistle stop tour.
After setting out from sunny Gatwick, landing amidst a fantastic thunderstorm in Bari came as some surprise. We quickly learned however, that once the rain cleared up, the forecasts were not joking about the heat. We spent the night at a campsite on the seafront and the next morning we were up with the sun, ready to officially start our expedition.
It felt great to hit the long flat stretches of road that followed the sea and we were making good time. Needless to say our luck ran out pretty quickly when, half an hour in, the SS Liability decided to earn its name. Hitting a particularly rough pothole, Esme’s bike gained its first puncture of the trip as well as snapping its front spindle. Several hours, a few more punctures and some help from a wonderful local at the bike shop in town, we were back on the road – note to self, make sure wheels are on the bike before you begin riding it! While this was the first breakdown of our explorer belt, it certainly wasn’t our last. It is safe to say we all learned about bike maintenance and the importance of optimistically bodged repairs over the course of our journey.
That evening we sat around what was beginning to become our customary dinner of pasta with tomato sauce and indulging in the amazing array of fresh fruit available in the south as well as, of course a cheese board fit for a Wild Wolf camp. We continued in this pattern of waking early, riding in the mornings and evenings, having siestas and meeting friendly locals. Over the following days we spent some time exploring the old city of Manfredonia and its castle, swimming in the sea (at sunset!), and learning about the history of the area.
Soon we hit the ominous hill of the Gargano national park. We had to make a decision about what route we should take to get to Termoli, the next stage in our journey. In the end we followed the coast around to the East and I think we are all grateful that we took the scenic route. The climbs were hard work but immensely satisfying, with long steep drops on our right providing stunning views of the coast and park, and the adrenaline rush from the downhills boosting our spirits further. Those first days through the hills were definitely a high point of the trip (pun not intended).
By our final afternoon of cycling through the park we were keeping an ambitious schedule and we had found a route that looked significantly more direct on our map. Deciding this was our best bet we headed onward toward Rodi, leaving our lunch stop in Vieste as soon as it was cool enough. We had had a long and hilly morning and thought the worst of the terrain to be behind us but it wasn’t long until we were following narrow winding tracks that were steeper than any we had come across. Many were uncycleable and a struggle to even walk up, our shoes loosing purchase against the polished road.
As it began to get dark and with the blood moon rising behind us, we found a local farmer who explained that the path we were on was for walking directions and we soon discovered why. Upon cresting the final hill the ‘road’ we were on disintegrated into mismatched rubble with gaps up to a meter deep littered across the narrow path. There was barely enough room to walk next to the bikes and with the thick canopy engulfing the passage, we were navigating largely by bike lights and headtorches. The descent was slow and perilous but as we emerged on a road to take us into town, we were all glad we had said “yes to adventure”.
The following morning, while waiting to catch a bus to Termoli, we completed another challenge by carving the Colosseum in a watermelon (and eating the evidence) . There we sampled some pizza, fixed a puncture and met a couple of scouts, awaiting a train to take us north.
Due to the slightly alarming announcement of “Explosives on the line” our train only got us as far as Ancona, so we had to stop for the night. We were again in a seaside campsite, though this time beside a playground, where we pitched up and settled down for dinner. Over dinner we got chatting with a couple of Dutch lads, comparing notes on Italy, Brexit and how people get their names. They even managed to teach us the extremely useful dutch phrase “Can you show me your unicorn bag?”.
We made an early start, making it to Senegalia in time for a mid morning snack and an odd conversation with a local. Having dealt with a minor injury as we were packing the bikes we caught the train, looking forward to the second part of our journey.
The first port of call in Ravenna was obviously a Gelateria for some refreshing ice cream. We could immediately see that we were moving from the rural south to the highly developed north. We passed through major industry for the first time. We came fairly quickly to a campsite and finally took the opportunity to do some clothes washing and have a relaxing swim; there was great entertainment from Esme’s (eventually) successful attempts to catch a crab.
The following morning we decided to continue our holidaying, lying in and having a late brunch. Well rested, we set off northwards again. We picked up the Adriabike trail that took us inland around a large lake. We debated taking the short route along the major coast road, but settled on the scenic route after our experiences in Gorgona. The reward for this choice was delivered soon after a cable ferry crossing as we were presented with a gorgeous sunset over the nature reserve, with shimmering reflections and exotic birds we were truly stunned. It only took a couple of minutes to get to a little farmstay where we were greeted by Stefano and a lovely cat and dog. After our usual dinner of pasta and sauce we decided we were fed up with our tent, so we didn’t bother with it; we spent out first night under the stars.
After saying goodbye to our new friends we set off, skirting the lake and enjoying the cool early morning. The first section was on the road and relatively easy, but the second was a track, with water on both sides and a million mosquitoes for us to inhale and be bitten by.
The first town we came to was Comacchio and was our first taste of the a town with canals. Continued up the coast and stopped for lunch, after which we had an extra surprise.
We were approached by a local, Barbara, who didn’t speak English so phoned her sons, who were explorers. Still slightly unsure we followed as she led us home. The town was Lido di Nazione, where each street was named after a country, as fate had it she lived on the street called Inghilterra (England). We were warmly welcomed by the family, and their dog, who gave us a candid description of their perspective of the north/south division that we had seen. Giacomo then took us down and showed us their spot at the local beach and the fantastically rich ice creams from the local shop. He also suggested we added fresh mint to our water bottles, which greatly improved the sun-warmed water we had been drinking for days.
Once we’d said our goodbyes we followed the cycle trail into a gated nature reserve, where the road gave out completely. We were cycling on sand and had to fight to keep momentum, or stop and push until the ground firmed up. While this only lasted a couple of kilometers it felt much longer and we were glad when the sand gave way to a more solid dirt track. This soon presented its own problems and thick brambles closed in on both sides, again only lasting a short distance but adventurous nonetheless. Slightly bloodied from the thorns and under a thick layer of dust we cycled the final few kilometers of the day with a great sense of accomplishment.
Once we had departed our (mysteriously free) camp we pressed on and the familiar coast road turned into fields and developed towns. Having made good progress during the day we stopped at a supermarket to buy dinner. This developed from a quick shop into breakdown as we struggled to fix a puncture, with light fading we decided to cook there in the car park.
At 4am the heavens opened, complete with thunder and lightning. Still not using our tent we decamped to the toilet block, and had a few more minutes asleep. When we awoke, with the cleaners kindly working around us, the rain had paused. We packed up, had our last breakfast of the expedition and began looking forward to how we would get to Jersey. Just as we were cycling through the gates the rain restarted and 2 bikes were struck with mechanical faults, 15 minutes later we we ready again.
Setting off in torrential rain was refreshing, but made navigation more difficult, especially in the urban sprawl of Chioggia. We had plans to arrive in style, catching the Vaporetto (water bus), cycling up the two islands separating the enormous lagoon from the Adriatic sea and finally catching the ferry across into central Venice. Waiting at the Vaporetto stop we had some hot chocolate to warm up, one of only 2 intentionally hot drinks for the whole trip. Cycling up the islands was flat, cool, fast and beautiful, and the ferry into Venice was spectacular. The sun came out as we came past the sights and it felt like a fitting end to an eventful journey.