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Italian Initiation Journey, Day 3: The Hills Are Mountainous and the Hot Water Cold

September 13, 2011

Day 0
Day 1
Day 2

July 23

San Baronto – Pistoia – Sammommè

34 km

Lessons from the road:

Lesson 3: Yes, they’re mountains. Even if they look like hills.

Lesson 4: Water bottles: Keep out of direct sunlight.

We started the day by watching our lonely cyclist neighbour pack up his tiny tent, his tiny sleeping bag and the rest of his tiny possessions and cram it all back into his tiny saddlebags – so much more organized than Pink and me, with our bulging bags and stuff strapped on top of them. He left early, before the reception was even open, so Pink insisted he probably snuck off without paying (I think he might just have paid in advance, knowing he would leave early.)

Going up the hill to the washhouse, we found a credit card, insurance card and a membership card for a tennis club behind our tent – all Dutch, of course. We were in Little-Holland-on-the-Hill, after all. We picked them up and handed them in at the reception when we paid and left, after taking some pictures of the view and eating a breakfast of cake and nectarines.

View from Camping Barco Reale

After that, it went downhill for a long time. Literally, thankfully, and not figuratively. As a cyclist, things go figuratively downhill if the road goes uphill, and vice versa.

Whizzing down, down, down the north side of the hill, passing packs of racing bike riders crawling up. Pink advanced the opinion that the north side was not as steep, and this was why the racing bike riders all went up that side, and down the other, and we had been stupid to go the way we were going.

I don’t know about that – I was too busy thinking about how you could see that the north side was shadier, cooler, damper – the slopes forested, the trees lush, the undergrowth full of Equisetum telmateia, which I still think is a lovely plant.

According to Pink, we went downhill for 7 km, never once stopping to take a picture of the scenery, the rolling hills, the vineyards, the olive trees…

Flat ground for a while, past numerous tree nurseries, the roads lined with chicory and Queen Anne’s lace, with bindweed, lathyrus, mallows…

It was easy going for a while there, but in Pistoia, things got… interesting.

During one of our many Map Breaks (which, along with Photo Break, was becoming a very important term), we had decided to stick to one of the larger roads to Bologna, to avoid getting lost.

So, at the first traffic roundabout in Pistoia, we followed the signs to Bologna, onto a rather large road… only to find, after a few hundred metres, a sign that said such nice things as “No walking”, “No horse-drawn carriages” and, of course, “No cycling”. Oops.

Looking back, I’m no longer so sure if that sign was actually for the road we were on, or the motorway on-ramp a hundred metres or so further along. I didn’t particularly want to go back and check once I’d caught up to Pink and said, “Did you see -?”

What to do, what to do? Go on and hope we’d be able to get off the road somewhere soon? Go back along the side of the road? Try to cross four lanes of fast traffic and go back on the correct side?

None of these seemed like a very good option. So in the end, we pushed our bikes through a large patch of tangled grass and weeds to a small street on the other side.

Pink with luggage-laden bike

slightly blurry Ivy with luggage-laden bike

Oh, the fun of navigating an unfamiliar town without a map! I ended up in front for a change, steering by the sun.

I’m always shocked by how many people can’t do that – I won’t pretend to be good at it, but can remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and so many people don’t even know that, and I could tell where north was, which was where we wanted to go.

There were three roads going north from Pistoia – the SS 66, which was the one we had ended up on earlier (Pink insists we were actually already on the motorway, but I don’t think so), the SS 64, marked on the map as the same size as the 66, so we didn’t want to take it either, and a smaller one in between them.

After moving in a semi-circle around the east side of the town centre to avoid the worst traffic (I may be able to steer by the sun, but I can’t handle heavy traffic), then going west along the edge of town until we could see we’d crossed the SS 64, we started to go north again – we were now in between the two larger roads, and any road leading north now could only be the small one we wanted.

And indeed it was. It was every bit as easy to find as I had imagined it, but things just went downhill from there, which is to say the road was going uphill again.

Up into the hills – hills? They look deceptively like hills, cute little forested hills… For some reason, my brain can not accept that something that doesn’t have a rocky peak might actually be a mountain, not a hill. But I suppose they deserve to be called mountains.

Up through little villages (I remember one that was called Piteccio, which my mind insisted on calling pistachio) and dense forests. Up and up. Steeply – there was no chance I would be able to ride any more, and even Pink ended up having to push her bike for much of the way. She insisted the problem was not that she wouldn’t have been able to pedal any more, or go fast enough that she wouldn’t fall over (which was my problem) – but she had so much luggage on the back of it, and the road was so steep, that whenever she tried to get on her bike again and ride for a bit, the front wheel lifted off the ground!

We soon added a third type of break to our routine – the Bridge Break. Whenever the road crossed a stream (which was rather often, with the road doubling back on itself, crossing over the same stream repeatedly), we stopped, leaned the bike against the railing and sat down for a bit of water, a cookie or some fruit, and to rest our tired legs and arms (pushing bikes is no fun either).

It was during one of those Bridge Breaks that the most memorable moment of the day occurred.

Pink, as usual riding a little ahead of me, called, “Bridge Break!”, got off her bike and leaned it against the railing – then stopped to stare.

“My bike is smoking,” she said, hurrying around to the back of it for a closer look at her bags.

I was too far behind to see the actual smoke, but I did see the result:


I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes…

Seriously! If you tried, this would never work – lighting a fire with a plastic bottle! But it worked, and it worked within moments! Pink’s bike was wobbling around, and the sunlight that the bottle had focussed couldn’t have hit the same spot for more than a few seconds!

Well, I guess now I know why it always says on water bottles to store them in a cool, dry, dark place! And I definitely believe the stories about wildfires being started by shards of glass now – guess we shouldn’t underestimate plastic bottles either!

Everything that happened after this paled in comparison to that one crazy moment. Going further up, up, up. Seeing wild cyclamen, hellebore leaves, lots of ferns, pink-flowered blackberries…

Pushing our bikes through the forest, wondering if we would ever arrive anywhere and wondering if we would have to sleep in the forest, then realizing that not only were we out of food, there was also no level spot where we could have slept. Looking at the map and realizing that after a place called Sammommè, the road we were on ended, and we had the choice of returning to one of the larger roads or taking something that was marked on the map as a “carriageway”. Looking at road signs and finding it interesting that on some of them, Sammommè was still spelled San Mommè. Regaining civilisation in Sammommè at last and realizing we couldn’t find any road going further, and deciding to look for a place to sleep.

There was no chance of finding a campsite up here, of course, so we decided to look for a room instead.

Considering that Sammommè is a tiny village halfway up a mountain, surrounded by nothing but forest, forest and more forest, it was a little surprising that it had not one, but two hotels.

We chose the cheaper-looking one of the two, where we first had to pet a few cats – a brown tabby, probably the mother, a ginger tom with a scarred nose who growled alarmingly when he tried to purr, and two kittens, one also a brown tabby and the other ginger and white and very fluffy – before we could go inside and ask for a room.

Thankfully, here in the middle of nowhere, there was someone who actually spoke a bit of English, and they did have a room – seemingly the very last one, at the top of about a million stairs, filled with ancient creaky furniture – I hardly dared to lean against the headboard when we sat on the bed because it felt like it would break. And except for the wardrobe, which was so huge that Pink and I could hardly reach the hangers, everything else seemed to be made for tiny, tiny people – the toilet was tiny, the shower head was tiny, the sink so low that even short little me had to bend down, the light switches at waist level… walking across the hall was life-threatening because of the rugs slipping around on the smooth tile floor… and there was no hot water.

Or rather, we discovered later, there was hot water – but since we were on the top floor and the water pressure extremely low, it took a long time to warm up. To be exact, it took the amount of time it takes for two girls to take cold showers and wash their sweaty clothes with cold water!

Our room in Sammommè. © Pink, used with permission

But hot or cold, we were clean, we had a bed, and hangers and furniture to drape our freshly washed clothes over, and a little village to explore, so we set out again.

Looking out the window. It quickly became a tradition to hang our socks and underwear on the windows. © Pink, used with permission

We wandered around a little, without a camera it seems, as there are no pictures, stocked up on cookies and bottled water and had a dinner of ravioli, mushroom pizza and ice cream with hot blueberry sauce before we returned to our creaky bed and our weird door-lock … you had to push they key in just far enough to be able to turn it – I’ve never before seen a lock where you could push the key in too far!

The view from our window


These posts are a little frustrating to write, because Google Maps is not cooperating at all – but I’ll try not to let that slow me down too much. I really want to finish telling the stories of our journey!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2011 17:46

    Looks like an amazing trip!

  2. Sahi permalink
    September 15, 2011 19:37

    When I was young my grandmother had a book that explained how you could use your watch as a compass. I’ve since forgotten quite how the trick works. But it had something to do with pointing one of the hands at the sun and looking at where the 12 pointed at. Or something.

    And lighting a fire with a plastic bottle is indeed quite a feat!

    And finally, yes I’ve seen doors before that were very picky about how far you pushed in the key. Highly annoying!

    • September 15, 2011 20:00

      I’ve read about the watch thing as well, but I don’t remember how it works, either. Too much fuss, anyway – I usually only need to know the general direction, and I can usually tell that by looking directly at the sun.


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