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Date: 28th July 2005

Newsletter 3. Two Saints in Italy

So much for us whizzing through Italy as we originally planned. We got stuck. Not stuck in one place for any reason – just ….we like it too much and have started to zigzag.

To be honest we didn’t love the South of Italy. Our route was basically along the coastline from Villa San Giovanni in Reggio de Calabria. On the surface it appeared ideal – beautiful beaches, stunning coastlines, hot weather, free camping. But the people didn’t have the friendliness of the Sicilians and we couldn’t get over the fact that when we greeted people they would look at us strangely and ignore us? Did we look that odd? We even eventually got tired of greeting fellow cyclists on the road – few responded. Also to be honest it was one of the dirtiest places we’ve seen yet – day by day we cycled along littered roads – all the bins were over flowing and recycle bins were rare – we are having a hard time trying to remember if we actually saw ANY .

Of course this has a secret advantage…. it helps unemployment figures. Seriously. Every morning on awakening on the beach we’d see someone patiently clearing up the mess left by the previous days sun worshippers. BOY do they sun worship. At six in the morning we’d be woken daily, not by the scorching sun but by the fact that the beach was already crowded with half clad bodies and kids debating whether our tent could be included as a feature in their sandcastle building.

A few highlights do stand out though.

Amalfi coast

Hey what – us recommending the touristy famous Amalfi Coast? Yes and YES again. Despite the fact that we were there in late June (high tourist season), we were cycling the wrong way – ie North (the south road hugs the coast), despite the fact that it was incredibly hot – it’s simply stunning. A cyclist we met informed us that he enjoyed it but the heat and the traffic just was too much for him. And he was heading SOUTH! We externally wished him luck but silently thought “mate – it’s only going to get worse… much worse”.

It was late in the afternoon - we were rattling our way up the cobble-stoned steep narrow streets of Vietri sul Mare. Small groups of people just stood and stared as we attempted to weave past them – some too stunned to even consider moving out of the way. Finally some guy broke the ranks and came running up after us.

He was a German cyclist – he’d left his bike back at the bottom in the main square – he had, at most, half of what we were carrying. At least so he informed us. He was simply flabbergasted at the amount we were carrying – and we were still struggling up the bone shaking ridiculous gradients that Vietri sul Mare offered? He was heading South – we were heading north. “So where are you planning to rest tonight?” he enquired.

It’s rare we actually know where we’ll be spending the night but for a change we were well prepared. Aware that a touristy, coastal, cliff hugging place like the Amalfi coast could present us with a challenge, we’d figured that Cetara, just one small climb and only 5 km away – described as a “low-key fishing village” – we figured that would be the place to stay. The cyclist looked doubtful. “I often do wild camping …but Cetara… well I suppose you could sleep on the beach….” He definitely wasn’t convinced. Neither of us said anything aloud but the same thought flashed through our minds

“Huh – we are Masters of wild camping – there isn’t a place WE can’t find somewhere to sleep.”

Sooooo ……thinking that we arrived at Cetara and got egg on our faces? – well you’d be absolutely right.

On arriving in the tiny village of Cetara – yes – so tiny we missed the turning, we were greeted by the Gotan Project which was being broadcast from the loud speakers. “Lovely” thought Stani (that’s a personal joke for you Paolo!”) who adores the Gotan Project… although 4 hours later when it was the same album was being played she was beginning to reconsider that opinion.

It was the 29th June. What day is 29th June – of course –it’s San Pedro’s saint day. And who is the patron saint of Cetara…do we need to continue?

A funfair and stalls were laid out – lots of decorations…lots of people. But admittedly very very friendly. We were repeatively advised that the fireworks would start at 1am (“from that pier over there”) and the fiesta “would continue until about 3am … after it would be tranquille & no problem to sleep”….. Great! Planning truly sucks.

It was a memorable evening. We were approached by a young man – who adored cycling – he had cycled much of South America & had the same approach to travelling as we did. Our hearts sprouted wings as we reminisced over places we’d all been. He also conveniently worked in the bar right opposite where we’d positioned our bikes so it was free beers all round. The fireworks… some of the best we’d ever seen – accompanied by opera music. Beat the last display we saw in Clapham hands down. We’ve put a mini film on the website – don’t know if it’ll work but if you have time (and ADSL!) go and see for yourself. (Sorry we had to take this off as it was too slow and consuming too much bandwidth)

The highlight of the evening was not actually the fireworks – it was the San Pedro procession. Being a fishing village – San Pedro is supposed to enter the sea… seems like he has the same dislike of water as Stani has as after 6 attempts of going forward 10 steps then quickly retreating back 9 steps we’re are not sure that he actually ever got his feet wet before hightailing back up hill.


Well in truth this is hardly the south of Italy. But it’s definitely one of the highlights for us in Italy so far.

As usual our plans fell apart. We had arrived in Valmontone a few minutes before 12. Perfect timing. We had an hour and a half to eat, find a Vodafone shop and a post office. We started following the road that indicated “Centro”. One turn up the hill and Stani questioned Richard “do we actually need to cycle up there?” So positioning ourselves at the bottom of the hill, Stani prepared lunch while Richard legged it up the hill to attack the shops before they shut for the daily afternoon siesta.

He returned – no Vodafone shop, stamps from a tobacconist only, which didn’t have the international dominations required. “OK no problem. Lets eat & after we’ll find a telephone booth to call Francesco.” Hahaha.

The eating part wasn’t the problem. It was the 45 minute hike afterwards round the old centre searching for a telephone booth, up and down steep winding streets in the hot sun. Being directed into little corner shops that didn’t have telephone booths – only strange men that seemed to be reciting their life stories in incomprehensible fast Italian.

Frustrated Stani headed back to find Richard – only to be squirted by a nasty child with a water gun. Richard then tried; a bar directed him to the local telephone centre – which was shut of course. Luckily before Richard started to kick the door in frustration someone turned up and kindly agreed to open the door so he could make the phone call to Francesco to advise we were coming. On his return the same water pistoled child found Richard also to be a suitably enticing target. Francesco turned up half an hour later on a huge beautiful vintage motorbike and guided us to his country home where he gave us a quick tour and left us to make ourselves at home.

Palestrina is a little known gem situated on the slopes of Monte Ginestro about 40kms from Rome. The more time you spend there the more you discover its hidden secrets. A quick tour of the Duomo with fragments of a Roman road at the top end of the right aisle unearths a copy of Michelangelo's Pietà di Palestrina.

History? Ha! Evidence indicates that Preneste existed as early as 9th Century BC. That’s Before Christ! Ok so now we are definitely talking old. On the same square is a statue of Giovanni Pierluigi – sure the inventor of polyphonic music was born here in 1525. Quite apt that we were lucky enough to be there during the Degli Artisti festival. We had 2 nights of wandering around being entertained by mad but excellent bands (and some awful one’s too! In particular one sole singer banging out out of tune U2 and Pink Floyd classics), jazz groups, men on stilts, fire blowers, walking through fire and having people standing on their stomachs – with only a nailed spiked board sandwiched in between, contortionists, Jamaican reggae bands… the list goes on endlessly.

But the special magic of Palestrina was the easy friendly attitude of the local inhabitants – we soon discovered that if it took 15 minutes to walk across the centre of town one should allow an hour, so that you could have time to greet and pass a few words with everyone you met along the way.

We should back track a bit … we met Francisco and his wife Paula in Sicily. We had just cycled to the top of Erichi, a 700m steep climb to a hilled topped town – beautiful but too commercialised for our taste. Several tourists stopped us and asked us how we got there? Hate to sound condescending but we were on our bikes – if we didn’t cycle what exactly did they imagine we did? At the top – finding a quiet little piazza we rested briefly for a few seconds. Our momentary peace was over – 50 school children invaded the square demanding photos and autographs. It was in this madness that Francesco approached us and explained he was on holiday and lived near Rome and would we like to visit when we were in the area. It is one of our highlights of our Italian Odyssey so far that we took him up on his offer.

The patron saint of Palestrina is San Pietro and his saint day is the 18th August and that’s when the real big party happens. What date was that? – oh yes – 18th August – hey that’s Stani’s birthday – no wonder she was drawn so insistently to the town. JPII (as we affectionately call him – that’s Giovanni Paolo II – the former Pope, JPI is our mate Jean Paul, JPIII was our toy rabbit that we found on the roadside in Spain but lost along the way … reminded us of JPI) also like the place – he was there 18th August 1983.

Above Palestrina there’s a tiny village called Castel S. Pietro Romano. This village is really what we expected Erichi to be – IT IS Erichi – spectacular views but without the tourism. It was here where we got our first view of Rome – at night - with all the lights of Rome shimmering in the distance. During clear days you can apparently see St Peter’s glinting in the sunlight.

Of course our experience in Palestrina would not have been complete without Roberto. Roberto taught us to eat raw eggs, (Richard came out in goose-bumps so in the end lemon juice was added to ease their journey down his throat) and took a decided interest in our photos – but only those where we were naked.

If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about Palestrina take a peek at the website (yes – it’s back on line!) there’s a bit more info there – despite the fact we were reluctant to advertise it – we’d like to keep it secret so that when we return in 5 years time for the Saint Day celebrations it hasn’t become a tourist Mecca. Nearly every Italian we’ve mentioned it to thought we were talking about Palestine – no we definitely don’t cycle that fast!

OK – so how come we always start these newsletters thinking they will be a quick brief update and they turn into the Encyclopaedia Britannica?

Thank you for those of you who’ve had the patience to keep with us to the end.

Ciao 4 now.

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Stani & Richard

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