The Italian Lakelands

A mile high divide, a wall of rock and ice separated the last valley from this one and when the canyon opened up the red-tiled roofs of Mediterranean villas could be seen across the valley fields. The people were beautiful. Skin was more tanned, smoother. Hair was much thicker, darker. I was in Italy. On the other side of the pass a change had occurred. Architecture had shifted. Faces had shifted. Nations can blend together and borders often make little difference when compared to the effect nature – an ocean, a mountain, a desert – has on evolution and culture. I cycled along the motorway for a while before an Ambulance told me to get off. This is only made the journey to Verbania more interesting. Through green, grassy villages I rode. The smell of cattle hung in the air and the fields were scattered with buttercups. Old men hobbling along, walking sticks in hand. Winding coastal roads. Emerald blue waters. Still. Tranquil. Always backdropped by snow capped peaks. Verbania was the start of one of the most breathtaking areas of Europe I’ver ever seen. There’s no other way of putting it, the lakeland’s of the Italian Alps were incredible. It was expensive part of the world. A lavish, luxurious place. So rich, in landscape and in wealth, but so beautiful. Racing cyclists shot up and down the snaking roads, raising their hands or nodding back at me as I passed. Dressed head to toe in racing gear, arched over, heads down. They looked uncomfortable. The ground felt fast, soaring through narrow towns, italian streets at high speed. I had so much adrenaline coursing through my body from the descent earlier on and the sun was beating down. I felt like I a pro with the kinds of distances and speeds I’d covered that day. I just didn’t look like one in my t-shirt and shorts. Day-27-Vista I passed through quaint little town squares, cobbled and full of old tourists. Stopped to enjoy the views on the lakeside and, in the early afternoon, when the sun was at it highest and hottest, I found an empty stone beach, pulled my bike down onto a jetty, took off my clothes and had a bath in the lake. Diving off the peer, brushing my teeth and washing my hair in the waters. Day-27-Road Day-27-Town-Square Day-26-Washing The world was mine to do as I pleased. A few hours earlier I had slept on a mountain, walked on crunchy, frosty grass, surrounded by white peaks, my breath had been on the air and now I was sunbathing on the jetty. I closed my eyes for a while before cycling on to the northern end of Lake and Locano, nestled amongst forests at the base of an overhanging mountain peak. All the campsites along the lake boasted five stars, pools and golf courses. I waited till the sun had almost set before sneaking into a  ridiculously epic camp; they offered bird of prey shows, kayaking, boating, restaurants, games rooms, a cinema. All of these I’d never use and so I actively avoided the reception by turning off my lights and cycling alongside a car as it entered the campsite. I road to the back of the huge, forest park. Little bridges, lit by ground lamps crossed over brooks and streams that ran down to the lakeshore. Neat avenues split off into the trees, filled with camper vans and static homes. I set up tent where the were no lights, stared up past the silhouetted treetops towards the stars, towards the mountain top and drank a beer I’d bought from the supermarket, with each day the trip was growing more interesting, more intense, more visual. I suppose the beer money could have been used for the campsite, but nevermind. A day later, over a few more passes and beyond two more lakes, I turned east into the Sondrio Valley. Mountains closed in again on either side. Much tighter, much narrower now. The mountain wall was steep and close and the valley was packed with warehouses and industry. Grim and smoky. I travelled a highway lined with factories and retail parks. The streets felt poorer. It was a shame to leave the lakelands behind, worse to enter such a grey region. The valley floor felt like one giant city, littered with tracks and wires and lines, strung out for miles. It became impossible to find a place to camp. There were no sites, only hotels. I found myself trying to ride clear of the city of Sondrio; a fifty kilometre suburbia squashed into this narrow, cold valley. Around midnight I found myself, finally, in the city centre, pushing my bike through a cobbled courtyard. Grand Italian buildings formed a square around me and I watched an old man in a suit play the violin dramatically. Some people strolled out of a bar and dropped him some money without even listening to him play. I never made it out of that city. I came to a halt near some rail tracks on the outskirts and camped beside a lorry park, beneath an unlit hedgerow. I was metres from the road, the train-line and the sound of laughter in a nearby pub. The following morning I was riding through basic farmland. Dog’s seemed to be barking in all directions. The land was muddier and the fields badly cultivated. It was the twenty seventh day. Somehow, even with maps, I managed to miss an entire valley turning and veered north into a completely different mountain range. I realised my mistake in the town of Tirano and, at a bookstore, asked the shop owner about the route across the mountains to Bolzano. He said… Your’e on a detour road through Bormio right now. If you’d turned east back there you could have crossed into Bolzano directly and it would have taken a day. If you continue north this way its much higher, much steeper, but there’s a storm coming… I looked at him and, ignoring the storm comment, said Which one is the most beautiful? The most exciting? And with that, I continued on to the town of Bormio, up the valley I had not meant to take. Turning back, retracing tracks didn’t interest me. I road happy for the rest of the afternoon through, finally, an empty, secluded canyon, forested and green and sunlit. The valley rose steadily upwards. Tall peaks stacked themselves onto each other, forming a triangle in the distance, a single point in the clouds where the pass must be. The Pass Dello Stelvio. For two days I struggled upwards towards the three thousand metre summit. On the evening of the first I turned onto an abandoned road, the old highway, now derelict, cracked by sprouting weeds, covered in browning leaves and overgrown bushes. It was a strange place. A peaceful one. The road had too many harsh turns and sudden drops for cars to continue to use it. I reached the top of a cliff and and the entrance to a large, dark tunnel in the mountainside. Empty. Lightless. The abandoned road ran into the dark of it. On a ledge metres away from the tunnel entrance was a grassy picnic area with tables, benches, a campfire and running tap water filling up a log trough. The grass was long and uncut. The only sound were the trees across the mountainside, swaying. I was seriously alone. But, there for the taking, the most perfect camping location in the world. Day-28-Abandoned-02 Day-28-Selfc Day-28-Abandoned-03 Day-28-Selfb I looked around expecting to see a group of hikers, a car, another cyclist. There was nothing. There was even a box of dry fire wood ready to be used beneath one of the tables. For a while I didn’t sleep, the stars were out, the night was still, but something was worrying me. I had almost felt safer back next to roads and rail-lines, in the knowledge that you were not far from humanity. Through the night the wind howled it’s way out of the dark tunnel entrance in low, pulsing growls. Day-28-Abandoned-04

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