Great excitement in the two bikes and a tent ‘household’, we had discovered an open Italian campsite! We had not stayed on a campsite since the beginning of December on the east coast of Spain. Every campsite on Sardinia and Sicily that we passed was well and truly closed with padlocked gates. Now we were homing in on some of the top Italian attractions, like the Amalfi coast, Vesuvius, Pompeii and Naples. Here, several campsites stay open all year round to accommodate tourists, mostly in campervans, and when we were there, mostly German and British. Anyway, our great excitement was the prospect of a shower and a clothes wash. We’d been on the road for over a week since leaving the slopes of Etna and were becoming a bit ‘jumbo-wiffie’. Planning our stay to coincide with a warm, sunny day to best enable clothes drying, we managed to check in at 9.30am which gave us all day for chores.
Our tent pitched, and with our hand washed clothes weighing heavy on the makeshift washing line, we showered and returned to the tent for a sunny cup of tea. At this point, Jerry let on that he had discovered a lump where his right thigh meets his groin. He’d first noticed it when he showered just before leaving our host on Etna and 600 kilometres later it was still there. He suspected he had developed a hernia whilst doing some heavy, awkward lifting in our final couple of days there, though he had felt nothing at the time. Sure enough, there was a flattish bulge, about 3cm by 5cm under his skin at the top of his groin that wasn’t matched by anything similar on his lefthand side. Getting the code for the campsite wifi, Jerry googled for more information. He was not in any pain, and had no discomfort until after we’d proded about, of course. A inguinal hernia seemed the most likely diagnosis, where intestines or bowel protrude through a split in the muscle wall. He also discovered that there was a possibility of it becoming ‘strangulated’, a serious complication of the gut becoming blocked. This would be a medical emergency and require immediate surgery.
We each had our different responses. I was a bit disbelieving and found myself minimising the issue and being rather unsympathetic. Jerry became very sensitive to every twinge and gurgle, imagining the worst. His immediate desire was to get on a plane home.
Despite all this, we ended the day standing on the nearby sandy beach watching the largest sun I have ever seen set behind the crenulated Amalfi coastline, before heading back to our tent for a giant portion of pasta, beans and sauce.
The next day, putting my scepticism to one side, I tried to concentrate on soothing Jerry. I suggested we might talk with one of our medical friends back home to get a professional view. Never one to immediately accept support, Jerry was keen to have the day to think about it.
Smelling sweetly of our purple shampoo gel, that also doubles as a clothes washing agent, we set off for Salerno, the nearest town, to buy food and a road map of mainland Italy. We’d been managing just with my phone app since leaving Sicily but we both missed having a map on my handlebar bag to examine. The road was flat and straight with fast traffic and as we entered the city and the volume of vehicles increased, I started a list of Italian ‘rules’ of the road tinged with a hint of sarcasm based on the activities of drivers around us and shouted them.out to Jerry as we rode along:
1. If someone calls, speak to them immediately whilst driving.
2. Texting is allowable on a straight piece of road even if it means you are not looking where you are going.
3. Children may stand in the footwell of the front passenger seat.
4. Always reverse out of a parking space into the stream of traffic.
5. Open your door then check to see if anything is coming.
6. If the parking space is not big enough to parallel park, drive in facing the kerb.
7. If there is no parking space, double park.
8. Hoot your horn if the car in front does not start moving within a quarter of a second of the traffic lights changing.
9. Hoot your horn if there is a cyclist in front of you.
10. Decide where you want to go, go there, then see if anyone hoots at you.
11. Remonstrate loudly, with arm movements if someone impedes your free passage.
12. Give someone an indignant and very hard stare if they remonstrate at you.
The list grew rather long before we located a bookshop, supermarket and bank, acquired our purchase and fresh supply of cash, and headed back out of town towards the Amalfi coast.
Steep to and rugged, the 50 kilometre long Amalfi coast is famous for its picturesque, cliff hugging villages and winding, scenic road. It is arguably one of the most beautiful and thrilling driving routes in the world. Consequently, it is also rather busy. Luckily for us, the Italians consider March to be the off season and so the road was only moderately busy. We tootled along climbing and descending, following the road around curves and tight switchbacks. The Tyrrhenian sea glistened beneath us and the lemon grove covered, terraced slopes rose steeply above us. Pulling into a layby, we stopped to admire the peaks high rising up from the terraces.
Several speedy, sporty cyclists passed us coming in the opposite direction and we shared enthusiastic waves and received many encouraging thumbs up. Coming around a lefthand bend we came across a queue of parked cars and, after passing a couple, it dawned on us that they had not stopped to admire the view but were waiting for a signal to pass some hidden blockage up ahead on the road. We tucked in behind a black Fiat Panda and took the opportunity to rehydrate and snack on a biscuit. Ten minutes later we were still waiting. Eventually, a stream of motorscooters appeared around the bend ahead leading a long line of buses and cars. A guy up ahead in a fluorescent jacket chatted into a handheld radio and then reversed his hand held paddle from red to green and we were off. Some 300 metres further down the road, we passed the aftermath of a road traffic accident. A car wrapped in a grey cover, a scooter looking rather the worse for wear, and police and rescue crews staring into a ravine on the landward side of the road with concerned looks. It was the first of three accidents we saw that day. All of them involving cars and scooters. Luckily, we didn’t become a fourth.
Whilst most of the road rises and falls in short sections, there is one long and steady climb up past the village of Positano. We set our speed to ‘nice and steady’ and plodded away for thirty minutes climbing up twisting roads past pastel coloured houses. Starting to sweat and pant a little, we stopped by a small waterfall for a drink. In a pool at its base, a small group of Mallard duck chatted away to each other as they paddled around in the shallows. We stood and watched for a while before recommencing our upward grind. Actually, for the most part, the gradient was one on which we could turn our pedals without having to really push our bikes up hill. Round the next corner, we arrived at the summit viewpoint and a layby full of a coach party of excited, young, Chinese tourists. Vendors with small stalls were doing good business selling souvenirs, lemon granita (sorbet), and fresh orange juice. We leant our bikes against a wall and soaked in the vista down across Positano and back along the coast we had cycled.
The Amalfi road held one more delight for us as we climbed up another short rise into the centre of the peninsula, our first view of the bay of Naples and one of the most deadly volcanoes in the world, Vesuvius.
Unlike Etna, if this one started erupting, we would cycle away as fast as possible.
The next four days were a whirlwind of sightseeing and hernia contemplation. Jerry celebrated his birthday with a visit to the summit crater of Vesuvius and a trip to the local Carrefour for ‘goodies’: asparagus, cake, strawberries, beer, wine and hazelnut cream filled Easter eggs. At birth, both of us managed to avoid the fasting of Lent. I arrived the day before, Shrove Tuesday where traditionally in the UK we gorge ourselves with pancakes. Jerry arrived on Easter Sunday and consequently loves Easter egg chocolate. After the excitement of an erupting Etna, with red, hot lava and old craters to explore, the Vesuvius crater was a bit of a let down. Just a few very small steaming fumaroles. Having paid €10 each to walk the short trail to the summit, we took advantage of the opportunity to have a guide to tell us about the history, geology and geomorphology of this infamous volcano. The last eruption was in 1944 and prior to then Vesuvius had erupted roughly every twenty years. The longer it goes without erupting, the bigger the next eruption will be. In 79AD the volcano had not erupted for 800 years and the residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum were unaware that they were living in the shadow of an active volcano.
We called my GP friend, M. She was very helpful and Jerry felt much calmer and reassured by their conversation. We discussed other possible causes of such a lump, the main one being an inflamed lymph node, and whether cycling was likely to aggravate the situation. M recommended that we arrange to see a doctor in Italy to confirm our diagnosis. Jerry slept well that night, while I mused on how we might arrange a consultation with a doctor.
Pompeii, Herculaneum and the small farming Villa Regina with its onsite museum provided a stunning insight into Roman life. I was amazed by the size of Pompeii, I had never imagined that the whole city was available to visit. To wander around the streets and ruined buildings (shops, houses, villas, temples, theatres, amphitheatre) of a city that had died in just 24 hours, was fascinating. It was like a 3D map. Some houses are named after their last owners or residents, others after items, mosaics or frescos found in the property at the time of excavation. The city was looted of anything easily excavated from the ten metres of volcanic ash that fell here. In the last two hundred years, more systematic excavation has taken place. I am curious about what the archaeologists did with all the ash they excavated but, despite internet searches in English and Italian, I have yet to find the answer. Most poignant at the site, are the plaster molds of some of human and animal victims of the eruption. People who died, either from suffocation or from the intense heat, upward of 300°C, as the volcanic ash column collapsed on to the city. The heat caused the tendons to rapidly contract giving the bodies a contorted and pained appearance. In reality, and thankfully, death would have been instantaneous.
We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the out of town farmhouse and museum at Villa Regina. The interpretation was almost exclusively in Italian, but with our increasing familiarity with the language and a bit of help from Google Translate, we muddled our way through, discovering about vineyards, crops, olive groves and life in a Roman farming villa. New vines have been planted in the burnt out root holes left by the vines that had been growing at the time of the disaster. One room of the villa was dedicated to the storage of wine in huge amphora sunk up to their necks in soil.
Herculaneum was spared from the ash of the first phase of the eruption by the prevailing wind blowing the last column away from the city. It bought the residents valuable time to evacuate. However, the collapsing ash column set off a mud and pyroclast avalanche that thundered down on the city covering it in 26 metres of debris that set solid like concrete. It lay forgotten for sixteen centuries before a chance discovery of a marble floor by a man digging a new well. In the 18th century, the site was accessed by tunnels and many of the most appealing and valuable items removed. Less than a quarter of the ancient city has now been fully excavated. The rest lies under the modern city of Ercolano. The ruins here are taller and more complete. Some buildings are two stories, still with their tiles on the roof. Some mosaic floors and wet plaster painted murals remain in situ and, at times, give the impression that the owner has just popped out for a loaf of bread.
Many of the treasures discovered at the two cities, and other excavated sites, have made their way to the National Archeological Museum in Naples. Leaving our tent and bikes at the campsite in Pompeii, we took the Circumvesuviana train into the heart of Naples, and took advantage of the first Sunday of the month free opening to visit. Mosaics, frescos, and everyday pots, pans and glasswear are on display along with a rich collection of marble sculptures. But for me, the most striking image was of a shy, young couple. Terentius Neo, a baker and his wife, lived and worked in Pompeii and had their image painted into a fresco at their villa. It is the only known portrait of residents of the city.
Back on Sicily, we had heard that the only Italian city to rival Palermo for its dangerous drivers was Naples. We were headed for Rome and our route lay across this very city. I poured over the map looking at various options. The easiest, from a navigation perspective, was to follow the coast. The roads would be busy, but then they would be busy anywhere, this is a densely populated area.
We set off into the Pompeii traffic shortly after rush hour. We knew it was likely to be an exhausting day watching the movements of all the vehicles around us and gave ourselves just the task of safely reaching the other side of Naples. Today, the most alarming drivers on the road, particularly in queues of traffic, were the scooter drivers. They weave their way through traffic, overtaking and undertaking, appearing suddenly on our shoulders then swerving across in front of us to take another line. To me, they seem to have a death wish driving up the inside of lorries, but that day, thankfully, we saw no more accidents. The roads into Naples were mostly tarmac with small sections of bumpy cobbles and, luckily for us, there were roadworks on the one fast road we had to take that slowed everything down to a crawl. We arrived in the centre of the city and the impressive port side castle around lunchtime and ate our lunch overlooking a small marina of expensive looking yachts. I mused on how many amazing places there must be to sail into in the Mediterranean.
After lunch, the roads were generally quieter, but were mostly cobbles. Bumpy, bumpy riding and by evening Jerry reported that his lump had become much harder.
Our guide in Vesuvius had told us about the volcano that most threatened Naples and that has a lot of thermal and sulphur activity. She’d also mentioned that it had an all year campsite in the crater. It sounded a great place to hang out and explore. Unfortunately, due to me losing two screws on the bumpy roads out of the clips on a front panier and needing to stop to replace them, it started raining heavily just after we checked in and we before we had the tent up. I went off to the loo while Jerry sheltered in a nearby building. Eventually, after about an hour, the rain eased off and we were able to get pitched and sorted out. A faint sulphurous odour wafted through the tent. With our newly acquired, bright pink umbrella deployed (we found it in a bin at Paestum Greek temples) we set off to explore the steam and mud. Whilst the campsite side of the crater is grassy and green with tall trees, the other side is a large, creamy, white moonscape. Nothing grews there other than sulphur crystals and a strange green bacteria that can cope with temperatures up to 90°C.
In the centre of the moonscape, hot mud bubbles away and the ground sounds hollow when you jump on it. A group of teenage French school kids gave us plenty of opportunity to experience this phenomenon. Most spectacular are the jets of sulphurous steam that shoot upwards out of small holes in the crust. This short video gives you a flavour.
The road to Rome over the next few days was fairly dull from a cycling perspective, lots of long straight roads with ribbon development and traffic. We amused ourselves with trying spot interesting things to share with each other. We saw our first Italian buffalo and signs announcing our arrival in Buffalo Mozzarella country. There were a few picturesque towns, one Gaeta, claiming to be the birthplace of Giovanni (John) Cabot, the first European to find Nova Scotia.
I also was in touch with our soon to be hosts in Rome, Stephen, and his italian wife, Antonella. Stephen, a cousin of our Scottish friend Rachel, had offered us a place to stay from which to explore the city. Now we had an even bigger ask. Could they arrange a doctor’s appointment for Jerry? They pulled out all the stops and, in a typically Italian way, arranged an appointment with a hernia consultant through a friend of a friend. He agreed to fit Jerry in before another patient on the day after we arrived.
We chose an old Roman Road, the Via Appia Antica to enter the city and passed our 19,000km just as we started on the route. Despite being off our food with a tummy bug, we enjoyed the traffic free route and the sense of following in the footsteps of over two thousand years of other travellers. We followed Stephen’s instructions for getting across the city, through the city walls, along the length of the old Roman jousting circus, crossing the Tiber and arriving in Vatican City with St Peter’s Basilica. From there it was an easy ride along one of the few cycle paths to their apartment.
The next afternoon, Stephen drove us out past the 1960 Olympic Stadium to Ospedale San Filippo Neri. After locating the entrance to the clinic, and paying the consultation fee, we didn’t have to wait long to be led through to Dr Luca Lepre. A few coughs and prods later he diagnosed Jerry with a large inguinal hernia.
The ‘good’ news is, that because of its size it is unlikely to become strangulated. The ‘bad’ news is that it is likely to become bigger. In Italy, Dr Lepre would have put Jerry straight on to his operating list. He advised Jerry to not do any heavy lifting or high impact exercise. No lifting bikes and paniers and no riding on cobbles. By the evening, we had pretty much accepted that Jerry’s cycle tour was over until he got the hole fixed. After another day’s deliberation, some discussion with friends back home, and Jerry agreeing to continue our cycle tour once he is better, I decided to return to the UK with him rather than cycling back there on my own and meeting up again in Scotland. We are both heart broken.
This week has been spent throwing out kit that has reached the end of its useful life; packing up our bikes and heavy kit to be couriered back to Scotland; arranging our own travel back via trains and buses; sightseeing in Rome; and, most importantly of all, eating loads of gelati (ice cream).
We’ll see those of you who stay in Perth around the end of April and one or two of you en route.