Monday, September 24, 2012

Flat Piemonte

After a very restful night at Cascina Nuova, we headed out in the morning with the recommendation of another agriturismo outside of Novi Ligure. With not much else in the way of camping options, we figured we'd try that out. We cycled into Valenza on the lookout for groceries and managed to find a gigantic grocery store agli Stati Uniti. I bought way too many groceries because Joshua had been worried we wouldn't have enough food. And then he got really mad that I'd intentionally bought all this extra food for him to carry. Good one, team.

We rode out of town on Strada Provinciale 78, a fairly large road. We took a right onto a smaller alternative that went toward Riverone and then Montecastello, where our map indicated that there was a bridge across the Fiume Tánaro, a not insignificant river that flows south-north into the Po. The ride up was beautiful, a kind of peaceful and not overly challenging climb through very quiet countryside that just kept getting more lovely. Little farms in little valleys and a cherry tree farm on the top of a ridge. The morning was overcast and we had bouts of insignificant rain. A mere 8kms and a decent descent later, we were in Montecastello, keeping our eyes open for that bridge. We were hoping to avoid Alessandria - big city. But, no bridge appeared.

We looped back through town and stopped under a tree in a little pull-out to have a snack. It rained. A man pulled in and got out to open his gate for his car. I went over and asked him about a ponte, and he said that there once was one, but it had been washed out a long time ago. The closest was back where we'd come from. Or to go through Alessandria. Dangit. We retraced that lovely little ride, going back up the hill we'd come down and then enjoying the long, slow downhill to Riverone and the 78. Okay, cross the bridge here, take the slightly bigger road.

Strada Provinciale 82 took us over the freeway and under the train tracks. In a small town we headed for the church tower where we assumed (correctly) that there'd be a bench to sit on. Lunch time. Lunch with the Madonna and her... snake. And some giant hibiscus flowers.

This day showed us some of the Piemonte that I expected. Kind of a lot of this:

Lots of pedaling over flat landscapes and not much to gape at. We reached the edges of Novi Ligure and were relieved. We were both ready to be off our saddles. But coming in from the north-north-west was awful. We kept seeing signs that said good stuff was coming up - Novi Ligure, city of wine! City of cheese! City of bread! City of history! But all we saw was industrial outskirts under a grey sky. It was probably the longest 4kms we will ever ride. Once in town we stopped at the first gelateria and bought cappuccinos and gelati. We did ride through the old center and it was pretty nice, but we cruised right through and headed for Cascina degl'Ulivi. On the way out of town we were already on a tiny road that twisted and climbed, a nice change, and under trees and passing old stone walls and (probably) old villas inside them. We wound our way up and found ourselves in another little paradise, where many people were having celebratory lunches (it was about 3pm). There was an outdoor eating area full of people from children to grandparents. They had a magnum of Veuve Clicquot.

We asked about a room, got settled in, and then wandered the farm. They make wine. There were grapes. And a couple of goats. And some exotic looking ducks. A handful of cows and a horse. And marama puppies - the white guard dogs preferred by shepherds (like Joshua). We cooked our own dinner but bought the couldn't-be-more local wine. It was good.

waiting for black rice to finish boiling

We'd hoped to meet the people running the place, but they were kind of running around and it was Sunday night, so once that was over they disappeared. Ooooh well. Overcast weather, drips and drops of rain here and there, and two days of climbing over the mountain range that runs all along Italy, the Appenini, to get to Genova, in our future. Early to bed.

And pretty early to rise. Our room included breakfast, which we had at 8:30am. Then we were out the door and back on the road. We continued on the curvy, climby roads in the neighborhood, heading up and through and back down the other side of little towns perched on top of steep hills. It was overcast again and downright foggy on the ridge tops, but quite warm. Right in the clouds.

But the scenery was varied and beautiful, with lots of steep vineyards in tight valleys. Unfortunately, not the kind of weather my camera can handle.

It did then pour for a minute or two. And one layer of clouds parted.

We made it to Gavi in good time and we did some gaping.

 And stopped for a cappuccino and a snack.

From Gavi, it's most definitely uphill for a while. Our friends at the bike/river center two days before had told us about Passo della Bocchetta, a beautiful climb up and over to get to Genova. They said something about bicyclists doing it often or a race or something. It seemed like our best bet for a quiet route towards the Mediterranean. We turned onto the 160 in Gavi and started to do some relatively chill climbing. The sun kind of came out and it was still a warm day, humid but not uncomfortable. Again, two layers of clouds.

a villa

We did not have a plan for the evening. We hoped to wild camp somewhere, or make it over the pass, or stay at an inn along the way. Just winging it. But we needed water.

At Voltaggio we turned into town to see about a water fountain and perhaps another cappuccino. As we were stopped in the square, it started to rain for real. It poured. I stood under a tree and Joshua looked for some water - yes, very funny. And at one point we put our water bottles out in the rain to let them fill that way. It was raining that hard.

In Hamburg we bought these bicycle ponchos which we've been using a bit. They're huge and cover the whole cyclist from hands on handlebars to butt on seat. Mine is orange and Joshua's is day-glo green. Don't worry, there'll be photos shortly. We stood in the rain, staying mostly dry, hoping that it would pass. We were there for at least 10 minutes. When it started to lighten a bit, we rode off thinking we'd knock on a door and ask for water. Then we saw the water fountain.

The road narrowed the farther we went. We were following a small river that turned into a small stream at the bottom of a narrow gorge. The wind started to blow in our faces. This narrow valley is lush and green and meanders up, up, up.

Narrower, steeper. Windier, rainier. There's this magical combination that most bike tourists know about, and it's when some things are against you, but the other things are not, so you just don't mind. Like when it's raining and you're enjoying the scenery, but it's not windy. Or when it's windy but sunny and the hills are rolling up and down. This is not what we got. We got the complete package of "you-shall-not-pass!!!"

What could I mean by that? The heavens opened up. The rain started in ernest again as we climbed up a steep narrow road and wind whipped down from ahead and told us to turn back. It got darker. We hadn't had lunch yet.

tried to take a picture

wet, but determined

We got a couple of rain breaks, kind of. But mostly it just rained, got windier, and got darker. And then the thunder started. Just a little rumble that got closer really fast and then cracks of lightning were shattering just above our heads and we could feel the thunder in our bones. Water streamed down our faces, a puddle formed at the front of my poncho. Just keep pedaling up the hill. Stay warm, right? It was the kind of thunderstorm that creates an instant river flowing down the road and makes you think you should not take shelter under trees - we were drenched, the temperature dropped, no lunch, we were in the wilderness riding our bikes up a long hill toward an 800 meter high pass. Keep pedaling.

It felt kind of like this for a very long 30-45 minutes.

What can you do? Keep pedaling.

We took a break in a pullout when it seemed to be letting up a very little bit. Looked each other over, looked at the rain, "we should keep moving and stay warm", "okay, let's go". Maybe we exchanged the sentiment that a hotel tonight might be nice.

The road did that thing where it felt like each turn could be the last and then we'd be at the top, but it was not the top many times. The storm did pass over us, with lingering thunder and lightning and a slightly less blinding rain. As it got lighter again and less wet, the wind also died down. We kept climbing.

When we did finally reach the top, it felt sudden. There it was, Passo della Bocchetta. It was still a bit rainy and it was cold, we were soaked so we quickly changed into dry clothing under our ponchos and added a plastic layer of rain gear to try to stay dry and warm. Thank goodness for wool.

Joshua went around the corner and said the wind was howling on the other side, so we'd be better off where we were. Going down the other side while we were wet and it was cold out didn't sound good. And we hadn't had lunch.

 And then this happened:

What the heck is that? Could it be? Is it coming this way? We just stood there watching as it did this:

Seriously. Oh right, it's only 3 in the afternoon. That's the Mediterranean.

It went from this:

the grey thing in the middle is the place where they put the names of the winners of this race.

To this:

Maybe it took 45 minutes. Maybe an hour. We just stood there watching because we didn't know what else to do and it was stunning. The clouds were clinging to the ridges below us and wisps of mist would billow up and dissipate at a visible rate. The view was constantly changing.

At sometime when it was still cloudy but we could see that the line of blue sky was headed our way for certain, a dude on a bike came from above us on the rocky path, on a mountain bike, rolled down the the road, turned back, and rode back up. What? There's a video about it here:

Heh. We were thrilled. There was a picnic area just above on the path and we set up our clothesline and dried out all of our stuff. We had lunch at a picnic table and realized that the city we were looking down on was Genova. We walked up one path to see what was there, but headed back to the campsite because it wasn't sunny and we wanted to be in the sun. A sign said that we were in the park - the Parco Naturale delle Capanne di Marcarolo - a park we'd been in for quite some time. Rules of the park are that you can't camp, unless you're above 900 meters, then you can stay for one night. Yeah, okay, whatever.

Some clouds did roll over again in the early evening, but we had sunshine until it set behind the highest ridge to the west. We watched the clouds coming in from over the Mediterranean with an eye for another storm. A few people stopped by the picnic area. One man had lost one of his bocce balls a few nights before and Joshua had found it while scoping out a good spot for the tent. Another man had come up because he had been stuck at work and needed to go for a drive and clear his head - we asked him if he thought it would rain again and he said, "No, fanno un giro." The clouds were going around (literally: making a turn) and we wouldn't have more rain overnight.

This is the border of Liguria.

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