Jerry continues to recuperate. Today he passed a major milestone, watch his first post op bike ride:
Seven long weeks have passed since Jerry visited the operating theatre at our local hospital to have his inguinal hernia repaired. It’s a strange process to be fairly healthy one day, able to live life normally except for lifting heavy objects, and then to go into to hospital to be made ‘better’, only to come home in agony and unable to walk more than a few metres. Jerry found the first week of recovery pretty painful despite being drugged up on painkillers. He bore it very well, lying on the sofa watching first the finals of Wimbledon and then the concluding stages of the Tour de France. Luckily our friends were away on holiday and we had the house to ourselves other than for Bobby the dog. Jerry slept downstairs on a sofa bed and waddled through to the lounge in the morning and back to bed in the evening. After a week he tackled the steep stairs and from then on was back sleeping upstairs in our bedroom.
All went well, though slowly for three weeks. He started to venture outside for short walks to the local shop, took siestas on a lounger in the sunshine on the decking and began sitting for short periods on upright chairs to eat dinner. Then one day he got up from a chair and his leg caught fire. Not literally, of course, but he had a very sharp burning pain down the inside of his right thigh. It didn’t disappear and painkillers made little impact. We both held our breath for a few days waiting to see whether it would clear up or not. Nerve pain is a common side affect of an inguinal hernia repair, but for ten percent of men having the operation this pain becomes chronic and lasts their lifetime. We were both very low, our dream of continuing our world cycle tour hanging in the balance. Jerry was back to hobbling, avoiding stairs, and getting up very gingerly.
It was over a week before he began to see some improvement, the burning sensation lessening and his movements becoming for freeflowing. There was hope…
Another three weeks further on and he is back working, walking the two kilometres in and out of Perth to Craigdon Mountain Sports. His stride is a little shorter and he feels some discomfort occasionally from the mesh that was inserted between the muscles to fill the hole. Otherwise, his recovery is heading in the right direction and our hopes are growing for more touring. He’s yet to straddle a bike and I think that will be his next milestone celebration. Jerry wants to have the best chance of a full recovery and so we are delaying starting our next adventure until the Spring and better weather. Our very kind friends, Andy, Rachel and Shona are letting us stay on in their house in Perth in exchange for doing a share of the the cooking, washing up and chores, as well as using our DIY skills on various projects they have planned.
Thank you to everyone for your thoughts and get well wishes. Jerry has been very touched by so many people holding him in mind.
Just a quick brief update on Jerry and his inguinal hernia.
He saw his GP(local doctor) back at the beginning of May and was referred immediately to a consultant at our local hospital here in Perth who we saw in mid-June. He recommended surgery and placed Jerry on the waiting list for an operation. Jerry was lucky enough to be offered a cancelled appointment (being fit and healthy has some benefits) and so on Thursday this week we walked down the road to Perth Royal Infirmary and checked into Ward 1.
Four hours later, Jerry returned from the operating theatre with a ten centimetre scar in his right groin and the bulging intestines no longer visible beneath his skin. A small mesh has been placed over the split in his stomach muscles that will, hopefully, keep everything in its correct place. Having passed all the required tests post-operation, I was able to bring home to our friends’ home to recuperate. He is pretty sore, but in good spirits, and I am getting lots of practice at looking after him. He’s delighted that he has an excuse to lie on the sofa and watch the tennis at Wimbledon, and Formula one.
Now he just wants to get better for our next cycling adventure…….
One of the interesting things about blogging about activities I am learning, is that I discover friends who are already experts in that field. This had been the case with sour dough baking and have been lapping up advice and suggestions from across Europe. Yesterday, I used a Paul Hollywood recipe to make my first loaf, but I now have several other versions to try to see which suits me and the kitchen here at our friends’ house in Perth best.
The dough was a mixture of the flour and water ‘starter’ that has harvested ‘wild’ yeast and bacteria from the atmosphere, strong white flour, water, and a little sugar and salt. Very wet and gooey, kneading it on the oiled work surface proved tricky as it kept on sticking. In the end, I used a combination of olive oil and flour (used alternatively) to keep the dough separated from the marble. After ten mins of stretching (the dough not me) and folding the dough was ready to rest and I had to wait an hour before I could tell whether the magic starter had worked and the dough was rising. I was thrilled to discover that the dough was ballooning up the bowl and four hours later, having doubled in size, it was ready for a quick knead and to be placed in floured cloth lined bowl to contain it in a loaf shape whilst it stood to rise a second time.
I made use of the time by heading out for a walk around the nearby fields and footpaths surrounding Perth with Bobby the dog (we were dog sitting for the weekend), Jerry and some friends visiting for the weekend to look for some cup marked stones.
Back in the kitchen three hours later, the dough had again risen and I tipped it out on to a baking tin, placed it in a hot oven with steam wafting up from a water filled tray in the base and waited. And this is the result …..
The evening tasting session proved popular and comments mostly positive. The bread was full of air, tasted a little sour (this is apparently from the ‘wild’ bacteria in the starter), though could do with being a little less rubbery. My experience from making bread with dried yeast tells me that this may be due to over kneading, so I will be a little less enthusiastic with this next time.
What amazes me, is that it is possible to make a loaf of leavened bread without using brewer’s fresh yeast or dried yeast. It seems like pure magic to me. Apparently, this method of bread making was used up to the middle ages in Europe and is still used to make rye bread in northern Europe today.
I’m not sure that it will translate to being able to use on a bike tour. We don’t have an oven and maintaining the starter in the varying climatic conditions we encounter, and on bumpy roads would be too much of a challenge. So far, we have mostly bought bread, and occasionally I have made Chapatis that don’t require a rising agent. Perhaps I will investigate other unleavened bread that we could make on our next adventure.
Not on a bike, but into the mysterious world of sourdough baking. I learnt from our cycle journey that if I want to do something, the best way to do it is to get the support I need and just get on with it.
So this week, after some internet research and a chat with a friend, I created a sour dough starter with just flour and water, and airborne natural yeast. After three days it started bubbling (very exciting) and I’ve fed it each morning with more flour and water. Tomorrow I will make my first ever sour dough loaf.
Well, I have to do something while I’m waiting for my adventure buddy to have an operation!
We’re pleased to report that two bikes and a tent (along with a lot of other kit) have arrived safely in Perth from Rome.
Thank you to everyone who has helped us out along the way, and offered us accommodation and other support. We have been very touched by your generosity, warmth and openheartness.
Now it’s time to arrange medical treatment for Jerry and plan our next journey. Oh, and Johanna has to find some paid work for a few months.
We left Rome on a warm and sunny evening, the red and black Frecciarossa train speeding us northwards across the Italian countryside to Milan. Looking out of the window at the passing landscape, I was reminded of one of the reasons that I love cycle touring so much. On a bike I get to really experience the environment around me using all my senses. I feel the shape of the land through my body and legs on every turn of my pedals and the gears I choose. My nose picks up the nuances of the aromas and odours of the places we travel through, I hear the wind, the animals, the passing traffic, my wheels rolling on the tarmac, and my eyes are alive with the colours and ever changing world around. On the train, I travel more less on the level, and other than seeing the landscape, I sense only the environment of the train compartment. I am left with only a vague sense of the terrain through which I have travelled. On a bike, I am left with a rich, internal memory map of the world around. I miss my bike. Travelling home without it feels like I have a bit of me missing. It was tough leaving our bikes at the Courier Office in Rome. We had wrapped them up in lots of bubble wrap ready to be boxed for the journey back to Scotland. Now we are just keeping our fingers crossed they arrive safely and we can be reunited.
Jerry is well. He is finding it a challenge to let me do all the heavy carrying. He has been given a limit of 10kg by the Italian hernia consultant, so coming home he packed just his clothes into one of my large panniers and I carried the rest in the other large pannier and our backpack.
I have the opportunity to repay him for the extra lifting he had to do when my back was sore through the Baltic States in Autumn 2015.
We had looked at various more interesting options to get back to the UK that didn’t involve flying(we try not take planes for environmental reasons), such as travelling through Switzerland on the Bernese Oberland Train, but in the end we decided to opt for simple and as cheap as possible. I discovered a sleeper train that ran from Milan to Paris and we booked two berths in a six berth couchette. Tight and cosy would be my description. We squeezed in with four rather large french guys and spent most of the time lying down. We were woken at the Swiss border for a visit by a dog searching for drugs, and at the French border by Border Police checking our passports. I’m never my best at 5am but managed to squint around the door post for a facial comparison with my passport photo and seemed to pass the test. A guy in the next compartment was not so lucky and gathered up his luggage before being taken off the train for further investigation.
Passing through Paris gave us the opportunity to catch up with our friend Aurelia and her two children, and enjoy so great home French cooking, as well as French Easter Eggs, for a few days. From Paris we took the Eurolines coach to Dover, England, having discovered that it was cheaper to go the whole way by coach, including the ferry voyage, than to pay just the ferry fare from Calais to Dover.
We have arrived in Kent at the perfect time for bluebell filled woods and blossom filled apple orchards. It’s been fun getting out on foot to explore the footpaths with my sister and her two English Springer Spaniels. Jasper is now over fifteen years old, which, my nephew has informed me, is the equivalent of 105 in human years. He still loves getting out and about, but is limited to a few hundred yards.
Kester, his younger play mate, is up for five or six mile romps and is still wagging his tail ready for more. Today we walked down around the outer Thames Estuary near Faversham and bumped into a group of birdwatchers carrying giant telescopes and tripods. They were hanging around some brackish ponds behind the high flood bank hoping to see the returning migrants, and they weren’t disappointed. Their spotters’ list included Bearded Tit, Swallows, Sedge warblers as well as a large group of Black tailed Godwits and a marsh harrier. I marvelled at how easy it is to have conversations with people here as I don’t have to translate everything.
New money has appeared in our absence, the one pound coin is no longer round and the five pound notes are now plastic. I’m slowly adapting back to driving on the left of the road and walking on the right. And after a year and a half of spending Euros, I occasionally convert a pound price to Euros to get a sense of the price of an item. We are so used to carrying our passports and health cards with us everywhere, that it is weird to not have to pick them up every time we leave the house.
I wonder how many other things have changed and how we will get on settling back into ‘every day life’, at least for a while.
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.
This gallery contains 10 photos.
You know the feeling, you get behind with something, and the more you get behind, the harder it becomes to catch up. This is exactly where I am with our blog. So to catch up to our current position just … Continue reading
Malta is the most densely populated island in Europe after the small City State of Monaco. Filled with people and traffic, Valletta, its capital, is only quiet between two and five o’clock in the morning, even in the middle of a thunderstorm. We discovered this on our first night on the island when, arriving on the ferry just after midnight in the rain, we had the bright idea to camp in a city park until dawn. With flashes of lightening highlighting the shapes of the buildings and massive fortifications surrounding the city, we cycled along the dockside and up into the old town. I had identified three possible places we might camp from satellite images with the idea that we could cycle round to them all and choose the best. In the event, just as we were approaching the first, thunder clapped directly overhead and the sky turned on its tap, hitting us with a torrent of heavy rain drops. We took shelter under the arches of an old shopping arcade. The roads ran with water, and the drains were quickly overloaded. ‘Wait five minutes’, a phrase from Jerry’s sailing days, came to mind, and sure enough, in five minutes the rain had eased a little but we weren’t up for a tour of the cities parks. It was tempting to spend the night in the dryness of the arcade, but we knew we would be very cold by morning, and it was very visible alongside the main drag out of town. No, better to be tucked away in our tent in a dark corner of a park. I ‘generously’ volunteered Jerry to go out and explore the options whilst I stood and looked after the bikes. Ten minutes later he returned with news that the gates of the main park nearby were locked. However, he reported, adjacent to it there was a sloping, triangle of land with trees that was dark and looked quiet with no paths. It was sandwiched between two roads and on its lower side there were a couple of bushes providing a dark spot shaded from the bright street lights. It looked possible. We grabbed the opportunity, pushed our bikes down the road and across the short grass under the trees and found a place to pitch the tent. The process of pitching and unpacking is so familiar to us now that we were easily able to accomplish it in the dark with no torches to attract anyone’s attention. So about twenty minutes later, at 2am we were snuggled in our sleeping bags in the dry and relative warm of our tent. I set the alarm on my phone for 6am and then worked on relaxing sufficiently that I could dozel off. Lots of mindfulness must have done the trick because three and a half hours later I came to, scrunched down the bottom of the tent with Jerry passing comment about the number of vehicles he’d heard driving around since 5am. The rain had stopped falling and now there were just large drips falling off the leaves of the trees above. We heard a car pull up on the road below us and reverse into a car parking space. It was time to get moving. Packing up was accomplished in silence and we were soon pushing our bikes up the hill into the centre of Valletta watching dawn creep over the island to the east.
We were decidedly jaded. I think it’s not as easy to do these mad things in our fifties than it was in our twenties. Then again, I never camped out in a capital city in my twenties.
The biggest excitement in coming to Malta was meeting up for a week’s holiday with our friend Andy from Scotland. About the time we were draining the dregs of a large cup of coffee, he was checking in at Edinburgh airport ready for his three hour flight. We just had the small matter of locating a map and cycling 20 kilometres across the north coast of the island to meet him at the apartment we had booked.
Cycling on Malta has many challenges and few joys. Although the distances are short, the roads are in extremely poor condition with lots of potholes and sunken drain covers, most of which seemed to be right in our path. The other obstacle, thrown in at random intervals, were two metre wide drain covers with tyre width slots aligned in our direction of travel. Avoiding all these wheel buckling, cyclist unmounting impediments required cycling out into the path of motor vehicles – and there are a lot of them on Malta. Every road had a continuous stream even at 9.30am on a Sunday morning. The Maltese drive on the left, something that, after twenty months on the righthandside of the road, no longer came naturally. We had to frequently remind each other to ‘ride on the left’, particularly when we turned out of T junctions. And then there are the limestone hills. Ridges of limestone run north – south across the island and the roads, following old cart tracks, have been built straight up them. Most of the gradients were 10% (1 in 10) or close and with our loaded bikes we were in bottom gear and pushing hard, our heart rates maxing out. We had to stop halfway up the final ascent to catch our breath and let our heart rates fall to something more normal before attempting the final push up to the roundabout on the outskirts of Mellieha, the village in which we had chosen to stay.
Malta is packed full of activities to entice the tourist and I emerged from a trip to the tourist office in Valletta, with a two inch thick pile of leaflets encouraging us to visit everything from Playmobil land, and state of the art audio visual experiences to 5000 year old stone temples and dramatic sea caves. After meeting up with Andy at our apartment for the week, we did much sifting and reading and decided to experience places that would give us a sense of the history of the islands and their landscapes.
The stone temples at Hagar Qim are almost the oldest known buildings in the world, predating the Egyptian Pyramids by about 1000 years. Approaching from the modern visitor centre, their golden limestone outline is overshadowed by the two huge, white tent structures that have been erected to protect them from the elements, making it difficult to get a sense of their size and shape. Closer to, their form becomes more apparent. Large slabs of limestone have been stood side by side on their ends to create walls. Square holes cut in the centre of slabs create windows and doors, and the floor is compacted earth. Inside the building, a stone slab has been laid across to blocks creating an altar.
The stone corbeled roof has long since collapsed or the stones removed to be used in some other later building. The people who built these……
Okay, that is as far as I got with writing my blog on Malta whilst in a hostel in Catania, on the east side of Sicily in the middle of February. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay on Malta and catching up with Andy. We did a lot of sightseeing, a bit of walking and some great sunshine relaxing. We managed to avoid all the European Union leaders whose summit in Valletta’ coincided with our trip. Malta has the presidency of the Union for six months – it may turn out to be a historical six months. Gozo, an island adjacent to the mainland of Malta, is much quieter and we had a sunny day’s walking there with Andy just before he left. We liked it so much we went back with our bikes for a day. We cycled over to the far end of the island to see a large limestone arch called the Azure Window.
It was a beautiful spot and very popular with the locals on a Sunday afternoon out. About a month later, I went on to the Guardian website to catch up with news from home. One of the headlines on the International News page was ‘Azure Window’ collapses. A storm had swept both the arch and its supporting column into the sea. Our night there was memorable for another reason. We camped up on some rough land away from the sea and, after supper, settled down for a quiet night’s sleep in calm conditions. At 11pm we were both awoken by the wind harshly buffeting our tent. We had little shelter where we had pitched and the tent was starting to collapse in on us. I went out into the gale to see if there was more shelter further down into a nearby valley. Nothing to be found. The last thing we wanted was a damaged tent, so after a few more minutes, we decided to strike camp and walk back down to the car park as we felt sure there would be some shelter there. Luckily, the moon was almost full so we had good light to see by though we took care not to trip on the rough grassland and steep stony track. Down at the empty car park, we wandered around in the strong wind trying various spots. We found a few behind bluffs that were reasonably sheltered at ground level but more than a foot off the ground the full blast of the wind hit us again. There was some hope behind a hip high bush and we tried to pitch the tent, but it was impossible for only one of us to hold it still while the other pegged it out, so we aborted this attempt and went over to try our luck behind a small chapel. There was a small amount of shelter, but not enough space to pitch our tent. It is not often on our trip that we have been completely stumped, but this was one of those times. It was 2am, and predicted to rain around 4am. We sat down dejected on the sandy soil. Staying still would only mean we got cold, so we decided to start walking with our loaded bikes back up the hill away from the coast. This way, at least, we would stay warm. It was Jerry’s idea, and he hoped we might find somewhere more sheltered away from the coast. So we began to trudge up the steep hill, the moon still lighting our path. After a few miles, we reached a village and it became apparent that we would not find a camp spot in the dark. I’d previously downloaded the ferry timetable back to Malta, and on checking this, noticed that the ferries ran all night. That meant the terminal building would be open all night. At last, some hope of shelter. Walking, rather than cycling (for warmth and safety because we were very tired) we made our way all eight miles back along quiet, empty roads, the only time we saw them like this on our whole trip to Malta. Around 3am, just after leaving Victoria, the chief town on Gozo, small trucks started to pass us, carrying vegetables harvested the previous day in the fields. They were heading for the 3.30am ferry, but beyond that, we do not know their destination. We discovered something of island life that we never would have seen had we been tucked up snug in our tent.
We had one more sleepless night on Malta and that was our last night on the island. We had to check in for the ferry at 4am. Again, being thrifty, we decided not to spend the money on accommodation. Instead, we hung out in Valletta, cooked our supper on the steps of the National Library, and then took up residence in the city’s McDonalds that stayed open until midnight.
The manager, on hearing we were waiting for the ferry, invited us to stay until the staff finished up at 1.30am. So by the time we had walked down to the ferry terminal we had just two hours to hang around before the building opened. I dozeled on my haunches in a sheltered corner while Jerry paced about to stay warm. I hope that is the last of our ‘all nighters’ for awhile.
Just in case you are in any doubt, we enjoyed our time on Malta. We toured around in a car that Andy had hired for about €35 for the whole week, visiting fishing harbours with colourful boats, sea arches, the baroque buildings of the ancient capital Medina, and bagging another highest point in a country. We ate out several times, once with the locals in Valletta and a couple of times at a small, very British-like tea room in the village where we were staying. The Maltese food is a fusion of Arabic, Italian and British. So pasta, cous cous and potatoes, though not all at the same time.
They are very interesting islands that lie on the boundary of the European and African tectonic plates and well worth a winter visit. I think they would be far to crowded for me in the summer season.