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Italian Initiation Journey, Day 2: The Hah Hah Hill

August 20, 2011

Day 0
Day 1

July 22

Florence – Empoli – San Baronto

53 km

Lessons from the road:

Lesson 1: Lower gears are your friend. Shift down, and shift early.

Lesson 2: If Austrian drivers honk, they mean: “What the heck are you doing?!” or “Get a move on already!” If Italians honk, they mean: “Careful, I’m coming up behind you.” Or “I’m coming round that tight corner where you can’t see me.”

We’d set our alarm for six o’clock, meaning to get up bright and early, and leave before it got too hot. At six, we dutifully woke up to an annoyingly cheerful jingle from my phone, looked at each other, groaned, and went back to sleep.

It was ten o’clock when we had finally dressed, washed, eaten, packed up the massive mess we had created, and were on the road. The plan was to go west first, then turn to the north, towards Bologna. Our attempt to get out of Florence (and the city traffic) quickly weren’t very successful. There didn’t seem to be a way to go south, on which side the edge of town would have been closest, so we headed South-West to some place called Galluzzo. Which we reached much sooner than expected, and almost didn’t realize it, because it appears to be one of those small towns that have just blended into a bigger one.

But soon after that, we left the houses and busy streets behind, and after passing what I think was a dead budgeriar, we reached the first hill of the day.

An evil hill, or so I thought at the time. Now, I say: hah. Hah hah hah. It shall be known as the Hah Hah Hill.

Still, that first day I pushed more than I pedalled, in the baking heat, past olive trees and bramble hedges, learning about curious Italian customs such as the friendly warning honk and building roads always over the highest part of a hill.

Up and up, frequently stopping for water, and eventually down again, first following the signs to Chiesanuova, then to Cerbáia, then Montelupo… no pictures from this part of the trip because I was too busy just keeping up with Pink – who was entirely unimpressed by the Hah Hah Hill and just kept pedalling away.

At one tiny alimentari shop we stopped to buy water, and peaches and cookies, which we ate sitting in the grass by the roadside.

When we reached Empoli, we turned north, crossing the Arno river. Originally we had thought we’d stop for the night at a campsite close to Empoli, but we’d found that Empoli was much closer to Florence than it had appeared at first, so we went on. A bit of flat land along the river, and then back up into the hills towards Vinci, where we didn’t do any sightseeing, no “birth house of Leonardo” or any such thing. Instead, we enjoyed a precious downhill bit, and then up, up, up again.

I’m pretty sure that after than one short downhill way just past Vinci, we were going uphill for the rest of the day, heading for some place called San Baronto, where a campsite was marked on the map.

Near Lamporecchio, we passed a spot where an hardware truck seemed to have spilled some of its load – hundreds of screw hooks were lying at the side of the road. For a few metres, we found individual ones – and then after a couple of kilometres, one more! For some reason, we found that extremely amusing, and had a good laugh about it in the evening.

This is one of only two pictures from that day – the other one is different only in that it has Pink in it, wearing her pink helmet and a not-very-convincing smile. It doesn’t even do such a good job of showing how high up we were, or thought we were – looking at the map now, I don’t think we were higher than about 100 metres (Empoli is marked on the map as being at 260 m).

Up and up we went, Pink riding her bike, and me on foot for most of the way. Not that pushing was much more pleasant – the handlebar of my bike curves in a way that makes it difficult to hold while pushing, and my arms were hurting pretty badly. But I simply couldn’t ride.

And yet – I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Sure, it would have been so much easier to do this by car (except that I find driving extremely scary and mentally exhausting), but I love travelling by bike. You’re so… close to everything, you experience everything totally differently than in a car. Not just that it’s slower, giving you more time to see – anything from the view down from the hill to the flowers in the gardens and the single rubber boot by the roadside. There are also the smells, of fig trees in the sunshine, and cooking pasta, of curry plant and… OK, also of rotting roadkill. There’s the sun on your arms, and a precious breath of wind, and the cool shade of trees, and there are other bikers waving and calling greetings, and villagers leaning over their fence to talk to you – in Italian, of course, undeterred by a confused smile, helpless gestures and “No italiano, no italiano.”

And it fulfilled that need I’d been feeling for such a long time, to just get on my bike and go somewher, to just go, that need for the freedom of travelling. It finally satisfied that part of me that, every time I got onto my bike, imagines Jack Sparrow at the wheel of the Black Pearl and mutters, “Now… bring me that horizon…” – the part of me that says things like, “That’s what a bike is, you know. It’s not just a handlebar and a saddle and a frame and wheels, that what a bike needs. But what a bike is… what a bike really is… is freedom.”

That second hill appeared as endless as the ocean. I don’t know how many times I looked up at that hill and thought, ‘That must be the top – it can’t go up any higher than that.’ And then we turned the next bend, and lo and behold, those Italians had found another bit of hill to build the road up on. And after the next bend, yet another bit of hill. And another, and another – it’s really quite fascinating. To say it with Obelix’s words, those Italians are crazy.

Eventually, we reached this San Baronto, and started to look out for signs pointing to the campsite, hoping fervently that it would exist.

Finally, a sign! Just at what had to be the very top of the hill – the road was just starting to slope down again when a sign with the campsite symbol pointed to a side street. Pink, as always ahead of me, turned the corner, stopped and said, “I think I’ll push too.”

Turns out those crazy Italians had not only found yet another bit of hill, they’d also found an even steeper bit of hill than we’d been struggling up all day. (Though now, I also say: Hah.)

Crawling up, and up, and up, for a bit longer, we finally reached the campsite. And found ourselves in the Netherlands.

Seriously. The entire campsite was full of Dutch people. Nothing but Dutch people. And us. And a bit of Italian staff, and one Bavarian working at the restaurant. Everyone spoke Dutch, the people at the reception, the people in the shop… crazy. Well, I believe it’s because they don’t have hills in the Netherlands. So when they go on holiday, they all go to the one campsite that is crazy enough to be situated at the very top of a 350-ish metre high hill.

We put up the tent, had a snack and a shower and washed our sweaty clothes, then sat in the tent

and amused ourselves by watching another cyclist of mysterious origin (we never heard him speak except when we offered him our hammer, and then he spoke English, just as we did) put up his tiny tent next to us, and a freaking huge bug buzzing around. When it finally landed, I grabbed my camera and headed out to chase after it. I had to use a stick to prod it out from among the leaves – no way I was going to actually touch it, the thing was at least four centimetres long. First stag beetle I can remember seeing, and I still can’t quite understand that something as huge as that can fly.

“Holland on the Hill” had the fanciest campsite restaurant I’ve ever been to, where you were actually expected to make a reservation, and they had a yummy Tuscan buffet that night, where I quite regretted not having a bigger stomach.

After some mostly-unsuccessful attempts to take pictures of the view and the sunset, we returned to our tent, to crossword puzzles and journal-writing, and to develop a ridiculous theory about how our map was actually a fake, and Pink was staying ahead of me so she could change road signs to match the fake map, so we weren’t actually going where I thought we were, and all this was just a elaborate plan to abduct me. It wasn’t the first ridiculous theory, either – before we left, we had already talked about how we would need to paint zebra stripes on ourselves, and wear watermelon peels as helmets.

Day 3


I’ll try to get back to posting regularly now – both the Italy posts and some plant-related posts. Maybe even something reading/writing/language-related as well. The worst distractions of this summer should be behind me – Castlefest is over, the grandparents have been visited, and my friend from the UK has also left – no more wandering around town in the evenings, no more sitting by the river watching bats, no more random tree-climbing, no more looking at the sunset from the castle, no more showing off the Nettle Nest, no more of our wonderful silliness and laughter for a while… but she’s already invited me to come visit her and go see Kew Gardens – oh so tempting! Not gonna happen this year, though.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2011 03:15

    That beetle is alarming.

    • August 21, 2011 12:02

      We were quite glad to have the mosquito net on the tent closed when it was buzzing around!

  2. Sahi permalink
    August 21, 2011 09:03

    Those hills sound just like English hills. Always another top after the one you’re climbing.


  1. Italian Initiation Journey, Day 0: Into the Unknown « Letters & Leaves
  2. Italian Initiation Journey, Day 1: A Touristy Day « Letters & Leaves
  3. Italian Initiation Journey, Day 3: The Hills Are Mountainous and the Hot Water Cold « Letters & Leaves

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