Cycling

“Life is like riding a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

Mistaken Identity in Koroni, Greece

I walked into the deserted Zaga Beach Restaurant in Koroni, Greece.  The taverna was dark—coming in from the bright sun it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I saw a young woman sitting in the back sipping a latte and reading her Smartphone.  I approached her.  “Kalimera (good morning)…excuse me…are you open for breakfast yet? The owner told me yesterday that you open at 8:30.  Thirty-ish with streaked blond hair, she looked tired, not quite awake.  Flustered, in accented English, she said: “ah…yes, yes, one moment”.

She went into the kitchen and returned with a menu.

“Thanks, we’re going to be a party of six, we’re bicycling so we want to get an early start…our friends will be here at nine…right now it’s just my husband and me…could we get one coffee and one tea?”

“Uh…OK…what kind?

“Black tea and regular coffee”

I sat down at a table for six, at the front of the restaurant, closest to the beach looking over the hazy morning Messinia Bay and up at the Church of St. Eleistria above the beach as the rising sun illuminated it.  There was still a chill in the air.

The young woman came to the table without our hot drinks she showed me a menu. “What kind of coffee?  “You see in Greece we don’t have regular coffee,” pointing at the menu she said “See, Greek coffee, espresso, Nescafe, latte, filtered coffee… you need to choose.”

“Filtered.” I replied, knowing that my coffee drinking friends weren’t enamored with the thick Greek coffee or Nescafe. My husband, Rich joined me. The waitress brought our tea and coffee and said she’d bring more coffee when our friends arrived.  We chatted. Her English was excellent.

“Where are you from?” She asked.

“The U.S. in Virginia, near Washington DC”

She knew her geography. She asked about our ride.

“Where are you going?”

“Pylos”

“Oh, Oh, lots of hills.”

She was curious, where else had we cycled, why we had chosen to ride here, and how did we plan it from the U.S. We asked where she was from.

“I’m from Kardista.”  She found it on the map Rich had spread out on the table, she pointed to it…north of Athens.

“See it is flat, that’s where you should be riding!”

We arranged with our friends to meet at the taverna at 9:00 AM, bikes packed and ready to go. Rich and I were up early, worried about how we were going to get up the incredibly steep hill to start our ride to Pylos. The others arrived right on time. Our server brought them menus and told us what they didn’t have…“no croissants, no yogurt”  and what they did have…“toast, eggs, omelets”.  At previous stops, breakfast was included in the hotels where we stayed, usually a buffet featuring cold eggs, cheese, fruit, yogurt, tomatoes, olives and breads. The Greeks didn’t seem to care much about whether the food was hot or cold.

The idea of a freshly prepared omelet appealed.  One by one we ordered with some specificity and variation…ham, bacon, peppers, onions, mushrooms…no ham or bacon for the vegetarians…“ please make sure of that”. Each ordered drinks, coffees (filtered and lattes), tea, juices. We chattered away and eventually she returned with our omelets…slowly, one at a time.

Others complained that they didn’t have wifi in their hotel rooms…we did. They were anxious to get online to catch up with family and news.  Gary asked her:  “What’s the wifi password?”  “I think it’s 5555” He tried it. “No, that doesn’t work.” “OK, let me check.”  She walked away and returned a few minutes later…”OK, it’s 2222…I just called the owner, they changed it”.

After we were all served, she lingered a bit, asking more questions about our trip and the U.S.  She chastised the vegetarians and told them they should have had meat in their omelets, they needed more protein for the hilly ride ahead. Again, she told us that we should be riding in the valley where she was from. She showed everyone on the map where she came from…“See no mountains there!”

We laughed and I said “Thank you so much…you’ve been so kind and helpful” Thinking—despite all our questions and requests.

The young woman smiled. “Oh that’s not a problem…but actually…I don’t work here” She pulled out the lanyard around her neck, showed us the whistle at its end.

“I’m a physical education teacher at the primary school up the road–I just stopped here for my morning coffee.”

“Oh my gosh…I’m so sorry, I thought you were the waitress”.

“Not a problem…the cook doesn’t speak English.  I was just helping out. I’m friends with the owner”Teacher Waitress Koroni

She handed us the bill and walked away.  Laughing at ourselves, embarrassed, we wanted to leave her a large tip. Before we could get our credit cards out, we heard a car start and watched her drive out of the parking lot in her little red car. Tooting the horn, she smiled and waved.

 

This was originally written May 2016 responding to prompt: Mistaken Identity. It was revised on May 10, 2017

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Categories: Cycling | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Ten Lessons Learned On Ten DIY International Bicycle Tours With Friends

After a challenging, three-mile ascent cycling out of Kardimili, on the Mani Peninsula in Greece, we stop, catch our breath and celebrate our progress. Through olive groves and stony terrain, we fly down to the next village. The crossroad isn’t signed, our maps and GPS disagree…the maps don’t show the tiny lane on the GPS route. Hesitation, speculation, frustration, finally agreement…we choose the meandering road through a lush pass opening to a view of the gleaming Messinian Bay and in the distance, the Mediterranean Sea. Within an hour, we are the only customers at a seaside café chatting and laughing as we devour fresh Greek salads, grilled fish, saganaki and cold drinks.

My husband and I with two other couples recently planned and executed a bicycle trip in the Peloponnese Peninsula of Greece—our tenth Do It Yourself (DIY) international cycling tour. Over the past decade, our group has cycled together in Italy, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Spain, France, Croatia, Turkey, Sardinia, and Chile.

A DIY bicycle tour, an alternate approach to commercial, supported bicycle touring isn’t for everyone. We pick a location and then do all the legwork—plot our route, make hotel reservations, rent bicycles, arrange transportation or transfers and plan “off the bike” activities. There are no van rides up hills, we carry our own luggage, fix our flat tires, make all decisions jointly and negotiate the ups and downs of friends traveling together.

Why opt for the more difficult alternative? The DIY choice grew out of a common love of biking, the exercise, the unfiltered view from a bicycle of people and places, and a passion for travel and new adventures. The freedom and satisfaction of doing it ourselves appealed to the strongly independent and frugal among us and the trips became an annual rite.  Anticipating and planning the trip, the camaraderie of a common adventure, and the satisfaction that comes at the end of each cycling day and the end of the trip keeps us riding together.  Each bicycle tour is an intimate experience in a small area of an unfamiliar country. Sharing it with good friends can enhance and complicate the trip.  Along the way, we’ve honed our practical skills and discovered much about ourselves and each other. For me, navigating the twists and turns not only augments my cycling ability but also imparts life lessons.  We incorporate and tweak some of what we learn on subsequent trips and some we relearn on every ride.

Here’s my Top Ten lessons learned! 

1. Traveling With Friends Adds Difficulties And Delights…And Teaches You The Value Of Both

I asked my biking companions what they had learned from our rides. One simply said, “I learned that other people know stuff”.  He got to the heart of the matter, the discovery and appreciation of each other’s ability and competence.  The trips improve our skills in the art of meeting people where they are, in letting go of the need to always opine or “get my way”, and remind us that a difference of opinion isn’t a judgment.

One of the pleasures of traveling with friends is that the various perspectives, personalities, skills and talents of each person enhance the experience.  But let’s be honest, the differences can also drive you crazy and make decision-making emotionally fraught and time-consuming.

Our biking group ranges in age from 65 to 74 and though we all exercise regularly, there are variations in strength, endurance, agility and skill. Each of us has an assortment of physical concerns and conditions, pains and strains ranging from a chronic disorder or two to the simple wear and tear gained from living six or seven decades.  Similar in many ways, we differ in style, temperament, tastes, and interests.

At the end of each day’s ride there is a lovely town or village selected for its character, beauty or its distance from the last stop. We roll into town anticipating a warm shower, some exploring, and a glass of wine or beer at an outdoor café. Usually, upon arrival, each couple unwinds and then we meet for dinner at an appointed time. On early trips, we spent an inordinate amount of time choosing where to eat. We met, then walked from one street to the next looking for the “best” place for dinner, checking guidebooks, rejecting restaurants—by sight, by menu, or because an aggressive hawker “invited” us to choose his restaurant.   IMG_5054We discussed each restaurant and compared Lonely Planet reviews with Rick Steves’ and Rick Steves’ with Rough Guide. Everyone had an opinion and the search continued.  Despite our debates, there was a 50-50 chance that we would end up at a restaurant with a hawker and plastic tourist menus whose main virtue was that it was still open. The discussions weren’t rancorous, just time consuming and unproductive.

Our dining criteria can be hard to satisfy…local cuisine, vegetarian options, within walking distance of our hotel, not too expensive, outside if the weather is mild, not touristy and definitely no dress code.  After countless restaurant searches, we realize we’re all more or less on the same page, it’s unnecessary to participate in every decision and pretty painless to go along with someone else’s initial suggestion.IMG_1251

We’ve come to accept our many differences, and in most cases embrace them…or at least we are more actively conscious of personality traits and more likely to diffuse tensions quickly when they arise.  We know each other well but are increasingly more open to being surprised. Key to our success is appreciating the value of what we each bring to the ride whether it’s language proficiency, negotiating ability, mechanical skill, humor, navigational aptitude or unfounded optimism. 

 2. Start With A Plan But Be Ready For U-Turns

We capitalize on our group’s array of ideas and viewpoints by making many decisions before the trip…our destination, route, number of riding days, days off the bike and where we’ll stay.  This helps us to understand individual preferences for the trip and reinforces common expectations.  It’s when we get to the specifics—especially when unanticipated—that our group decision-making is tested, nerves can fray and feelings may be upset.

The downside of making “upfront” decisions is that it can put unwelcome pressure on planning. Over simple dinners with plenty of wine, we’ve turned the exercise into an enjoyable prelude to our adventure. Our Friday night dinners build interest and excitement for the trip while working through issues and concerns.

We plan our route using generally agreed upon, but somewhat subjective criteria. AC Gravel Road To avoid traffic as much as possible, we prefer small, secondary asphalt (not gravel) roads. We try to keep the distance we ride each day to less than 40 miles and look for terrain that is not too mountainous. Sometimes, the criteria go out the window forcing us to adjust our group mindset (and yes, it takes some of us longer than others to reboot).  When the main road we planned to avoid isn’t as busy as anticipated, the maps are wrong, or the only way from here to there is a gravel road, we alter our route.

Or, the road on the map is closed or not accessible. Take the evening in Dalyan, Turkey when Emrah, the proprietor of our hotel chatted with us as we relaxed in the outdoor bar. Emrah wanted to buy a new bike; he wondered what we would recommend.  We talked about where he rides, the pros and cons of road bikes and mountain bikes and offered our advice. He asked us where we were headed the next day and we showed him a map with our planned route, a 30-mile ride along the coast to the town of Icmeler.  Emrah thought there might be a better way out of town, but called a friend who frequently cycles in the area to confirm it.

He came back to our table and reported:

“My friend tells me you cannot go the way you planned. The military has that road restricted, no one is allowed there.”

The good news was that we got this information before riding ten miles only to be turned back. The bad news? The alternate route was much longer, at least sixty miles with several long climbs. It also entailed crossing the Dalyan River, which had no bridge. Emrah assured us that there was a family-run boat service.  Turkey (gary's Pics) 065They would take us and our bicycles across without a problem… and they did…piling all six bikes and riders into a 12-foot boat to cross the narrow but very deep river.  Once on the other shore, we made our way up a rough-surfaced, forested mountain road. There were many steep climbs, traffic, construction and wrong turns but as the sun set we arrived at our destination, a resort hotel on Icmeler Bay.

Rarely, we disagree about which road to take, what time to leave, or, whether to make an unplanned stop.   Most often, after much discussion, we compromise and continue. However, when feelings are strong and consensus isn’t reached, we reluctantly split up and go our separate ways. Experience tells us that rather than going along unhappily it’s best to part and meet up at some point or reunite at our day’s destination.

3.  Travel Light…Really Light…But Be Prepared

Unlike a supported bicycle tour where someone carries your bags and delivers them to your next stop, a DIY tour requires a serious packing strategy. We haul everything we’ll need for the 7-10 days of riding in two panniers (saddle bags) and a handlebar bag. The goal is to carry as little as possible but everything you need.

Most cyclists focus on lightweight equipment, especially the bike, but ten pounds is the same whether taken off the bicycle frame, the rider or the gear carried. Four of us rent bikes so we don’t have much control over the weight of our bicycle frames. That leaves us with reducing what we bring…a delicate balance of necessity versus riding ease. Paring down the packing list is key—fewer, lighter clothes and gear, no extra food, and not as many tools. AC shirts hanging to dry Sardenia There’s no room for “just in case” packing. Lightweight bicycling shirts and shorts dry quickly and hand washing in the hotel sink is a regular practice.  Colorful clothes hanging out the window to dry make our hotel rooms easy to identify.  We bring only one pair of “off the bike” pants and perhaps two tops.  We get to know each other’s outfits so we’re easy to spot on a crowded sidewalk as well.

The “light is right” goal can be taken too far…not having the proper tools or weather gear can make for a whole lot of misery. On several of our early trips, one friend brought just one pair of shoes for use on and off the bike. That ended after our occasionally rainy trip in France when he spent several days walking and riding in soggy shoes that never had time to dry out.   

4. The Hills Are Alive And Well And So Am I

It seems to me that almost all the best spots for a bike tour are in mountainous regions or lie along oceans, seas, and lakes.  IMG_3480You might think you can find a route where you ride along the valley floor or in flat coastal areas, but not so.  The truth is that most scenic towns and villages are either high in the mountains, affording beautiful views and scenery or close to the always-alluring water.  At a minimum, you must climb to reach the hilltop town at the end of the day or ride down to a coastal destination only to climb back up to start the next day.

One of my biking companions wears a t-shirt that says…”It’s Just A Hill—Get Over It”…and she does. Me? I hate hills; they are my nemesis, a bitter, unconquerable enemy.  I’ve tried to make friends with them, but they remain my physical and emotional cycling-antagonist. While I haven’t learned to “get over it” literally or figuratively, I have found ways to co-exist.

All Croatia 198 (2)Every year I seek different strategies to conquer the hills—counting pedal strokes, a different seat or pedal position, working out pre-ride to get in shape. I lighten the weight of my gear and try to lower my weight. In search of the ultimate answer, I’ve Googled variations on “how to make biking hills easy” and learned that although there are many theories about consumables and techniques that make cycling hills less difficult, “experts” agree there’s no magic strategy.

I’ll never love (or even like) the challenge of riding up steep grades, but I am moving toward acceptance, and dread them less. Now when my lungs feel like they might burst, my thighs scream and my quads burn, smoldering with every pedal stroke, I remember to loosen my death grip on the handlebars. I try to relax, to breathe and find a mantra. When I think I can’t pedal one more stroke and I’m going so slowly that the bike might topple I tell myself “I can make it“, “I can push one more pedal stroke”, “I can stay upright on my bike”, and I always know that in a pinch I can walk the damn thing up each steep, never-ending ascent. Another solution? This year we’re headed to Denmark where we may deal with the wind but not hills!

5. Never Trust Advice About A Route Or Road Conditions From Someone Who Isn’t A Cyclist No Matter How Nice Or Confident The Person Is

One of the joys of cycling trips is that there are no barriers or filters between the landscape, the people, and you. The pace allows for chance interactions with nature as well as with local residents.  People are usually friendly and likely find the sight of six seniors on bikes both odd and engaging.

Locals are often eager to provide advice and suggestions. Regrettably, experience tells us that non-cyclists generally cannot be relied upon to give an accurate assessment of a road’s grade, the riding condition of a dirt or gravel road, or how much traffic to expect.

When an individual offers advice, we listen graciously and try to resist the natural instinct to take the well-meaning guidance when it has to do with riding. However, sometimes, depending on our current state of confusion, we break our vow and take the advice (see Lesson 8). cropped-ac-getting-directions-from-french-farmer.jpgTraveling from Cirq La Popie via Cahors to Puy L’Eveque in France, our maps were inconsistent as to how to get to Cahors so we stopped and asked a farmer for assistance.  He disregarded both maps and directed us to a “shorter route”—a treacherous, steeply graded, loose gravel road. Not only was it longer than the routes on the map, but we ended up walking our bikes for long stretches on the deeply rutted, rocky road adding time rather than saving it.

Certainly, there have been times that road angels saved us from taking dangerous or out of the way routes but caution is warranted. If you haven’t cycled a road it’s hard to gauge its grade and safety.

6.  Be Seen And Heard

Although there have been near misses, we’ve never been involved in a collision or serious accident on our travels.  Nor have we directly experienced aggressive or belligerent behavior by drivers in our host countries.  There is no doubt that the number of distracted drivers has increased worldwide at least in part due to the prevalence and use of smartphones.  Add that to drivers who don’t like sharing the road with cyclists and the occasional downright nasty bully and the chance of being hit or sideswiped increases.  Unseen on the open road, cars or trucks may come so close that they force a cyclist off the pavement. In city traffic, a vehicle may turn right as you proceed straight ahead.  As long time cyclists, we are not fearful of sharing the road with vehicles, but we are aware of the dangers and are increasingly more cautious.

We’ve developed safeguards and preventative measures.  On our early bicycle tours, we often wore dark, unobtrusive clothing.  Black or dark blue jackets, subtle colored shirts and rain gear, the sort of clothes you’d wear every day.  Over time, we’ve become brilliant…at least in our riding attire and equipment.  We’ve learned that visibility is a defense.  Kayakoy BikersWe wear fluorescent yellow or lime green windbreakers and vests, brightly colored shirts and raincoats. Some of us have bright yellow helmet covers and colored panniers with fluorescent markers on the back.

We’ve also added flashlights and small headlights.  Usually, we make a point of not riding after dark or even at dusk, but that’s not always within our control.  In Croatia, our ferry docked much further from the city center and our hotel than we had anticipated. The directions we had were incorrect.  As we found our way along dark streets with no lights, we pledged to always bring or secure lights and reflectors for our bikes.

A few of us also have bells on our bikes to warn others of our approach but a polite shout out also works. Merhaba! Ahoj! Yassus! Hola!   A smile and hello in the native language can endear you to residents and make you feel good too. 

7.  Expectations Can Make You Miserable Or Ecstatic…Learn To Manage Them

Planning raises expectations about the ride, hotels, food, activities…you name it. For instance, mapping software has become invaluable in determining the route we’ll take, how far we’ll ride each day, the location of towns and services, whether the roads are gravel and the elevation gain, hill by hill. However, now and then, reality doesn’t match the maps. The dreaded hill is not as bad as anticipated or it’s worse, the town we decided to stay in based solely on the distance (and wasn’t in any of the guidebooks) is the most idyllic, quaint and unspoiled of the trip. The lovely internet pictures of spacious rooms and charming boutique hotels can disappoint. Your behavior and mood or that of your travel companions may not be what you counted on. You may be sure you know what these old friends are thinking and feeling only to be surprised when they slip out of your pigeonhole.

As we mapped our route in Greece, I monitored it closely focused on steep elevation gains and spending hours trying to find alternate roads around the mountains.  According to Ride with GPS, the steepest climb would be the road out of Kardamili. Greece All (329) There was simply no other road out of the town described universally as “an exquisite, seaside village nestled at the foot of the Taygetus Mountains”.  It was a “don’t miss” site. No way was I going to convince my friends to skip it. I worried about this massive climb for the first four days of our trip.  Lying on the beach of the Messenian Bay I fantasized asking the hotel owner if he knew of someone who could ferry my bike and me up the mountain. In the morning, I started the ride anxious and grumpy, sure that I would be walking most of the three-mile climb.  As we rode, I was relieved to see that there were switchbacks zigzagging across the face of the mountain, making the ride easier, but dread was my companion as I anticipated the more difficult elevations ahead…and then we were at the summit.

“What!”

“That wasn’t so bad.”

Everyone was relieved and baffled. We decided that the GPS route evidently went straight up the mountain rather than along the switchback road! Lessons learned (confirmed)…worry is a wasted emotion and expectations can be worse than reality or become pleasant surprises.

8.  There Are Many Ways To Lose Your Way…And Only A Few Ways To Find It

Given the amount of time and effort we put into route planning it’s surprising how much time we spend “lost”.  It happens…a missed turn, misreading a map, the dearth or complete absence of road signage, muddled or misunderstood directions.

Where Are We

Maybe not so surprising are the discussions and disputes that ensue.

This is where we spend the most time discussing and debating. The trips would not be possible without some inveterate map aficionados.  Although we now rely heavily on routing software, we also purchase detailed paper maps.

For us, there appears to be an intrinsic lack of confidence in the mapping software, often because it shows small, local lanes and roads not found on printed maps creating a disconnect between the software maps and the printed maps.IMG_0164 That, combined with occasional uncertainty on the part of the GPS operator, leads to disagreement about which way to go.

When we’re confused and frustrated, a simple solution is to ask directions from a local resident despite our vow not to take advice from non-cyclists (see Lesson 5). It seems reasonable that asking for directions is the best way to correct your course, but that too has led us astray.   It turns out that asking for directions when you don’t speak the language and don’t know where you are relative to your destination from someone who doesn’t understand you, your map, or where you want to go is likely to get you lost again. We’ve learned that at a minimum when we do ask for directions, with or without a map, at least two people should listen to the answer. We’re also learning more about mapping software and respecting it more.

9.  Riding Is Solitary… It’s About You…Not Them…Sort Of

An oft-repeated tip about traveling with groups is to make sure that you have time alone while you travel.  One of the unique aspects of cycling is that it is essentially a solitary AC Solitary ride Chech Republicendeavor.  While you may find opportunities to ride side by side, you are more often alone with your thoughts, focused on the road and on your own performance.  It takes concentration to keep a steady pace and to be aware of your environment for your safety and your enjoyment.  It’s easy to hit a pothole or fail to see a car coming toward you or from behind.  Cycling provides ample time to daydream and pass the time reflecting on the ride or on life.

For me, thoughts of failure can lurk along with the excitement of the ride. There’s no better time for unspoken comparisons and feelings of inferiority to surface than during the solitary hours of riding. I’m overly sensitive to perceived slights, judgments, comments and actions. I know from experience that for me, such inner monologues can be the “thief of joy”, a sure way to destroy self-esteem and trigger snarky comments or unnecessary disagreements.Kayakoy Bikers 3 (2)

I’ve gotten better at reining in my inner critic before she gets out of hand.  And, fortunately, traveling as couples means that I’m accompanied by my mate of nearly 50 years who often realizes I’m brooding before I do and does his best to bring me back to reality. 

10.  Every Day Isn’t The Best…But Combined They Are The Best Ride Ever

There are bad days on every journey, and a bike trip is no exception.  Sometimes there are “…no good, very bad days” and occasionally there is more than one of them.  Our cycling trips are subject to conditions not within our control…weather (rain, wind, temperature), terrain (steep hills, often called mountains), bad roads, indecipherable road signs, bad directions, crazy or distracted drivers, injuries and mad dogs.  Minor irritations, disagreements, misunderstandings, passive-aggressive behavior, bad moods, competition, insensitive remarks, and frustration have the potential to mar the experience.

Somehow, the difficulties and challenges seem to magically evaporate or at least fade after a hot shower, a dip in the ocean, a cold beer or glass of wine and dinner with friends. As we talk about the day, the latest news from home or thoughts and plans we realize that these friends transform the trip from ordinary to incredible.

The positive aspects of the experience eclipse the irritants.  With no hierarchy and shared leadership, we are all responsible for the trip’s success and our own enjoyment of it.  Relying on each other emotionally and in the tasks we share creates unspoken mutual support, knowledge, and acceptance of each other rather than judgment of individual performance. Each ride is a personal journey and exploration, but together we do more, see more, and meet more interesting people.  Sharing the challenges, the unexpected encounters and the achievements large and small deepens the pleasure of our biking trip.   There’s a sense that together we’ve done something unique and special creating a strong and lasting bond.

At the end of the trip tired and very ready to stop riding, we’re also a bit sad that it’s over because it has been “…the best ride ever!”  We re-enter our everyday lives knowing that the only antidote is to start planning the next ride but we’ve also learned to relish the extraordinary experience—let the “best ever” ride age and mellow before beginning anew.

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Bike Tour in the Peloponnese and Other Adventures in Greece

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A Slice of Turkey

The early morning road was a gray ribbon that hugged the rough ocher rock walls as they fell into the sea.  The silver guardrail snaked along the seaside cliff.  Beyond the rail, the deep, blue Mediterranean glistened in the sun and roiled in the wind. Tiny islands, Meis, Rö and nameless masses float in the distance as occasional sailboats flew by in the heavy winds.

As we bicycled away from the friendly, laid-back town of Kas, Turkey I couldn’t help but think of the challenging prelude to our ride.  Turkey was our seventh international DIY bicycle tour. Our group, three couples, long-time friends, would eventually cycle over 200 miles from Kas to Datca along the Turquoise Coast and inland through ancient Lycia. In the beginning, the idea of a bicycle trip in Turkey was a bit contentious.  Riding along the Turquoise Coast, the dramatic southwestern shoreline of the Aegean Sea with the mountainous backdrop enticed us.  That, combined with the allure of spending a few days on both ends of the bike trip in Istanbul, made the idea of Turkey as a destination attractive despite plenty of warning signs that it would not be easy.  It wasn’t only the difficult terrain, the unfamiliar language and culture, but perhaps most troubling, the fact that recreational cycling is virtually unheard of in much of Turkey and the kind of detailed road maps we needed almost impossible to find.

As we debated the pros and cons of Turkey as a possible biking destination we searched the internet looking for companies that rented bicycles and/or provided biking tours as we do in planning all of our trips.  I emailed and called dozens of leads but found only one individual, a British ex-pat who assured us that he could rent us bicycles and provide detailed maps and cue sheets.  The relationship we developed with Simon via email and Skype convinced us that we could indeed manage a ride in Turkey.

Simon arranged for our pick up at the Dalaman airport and transfer to the Hideaway Hotel in Kas, but failed to deliver on every other commitment.  Ill-fitting, rusty mountain bikes with worn brakes, no helmets, maps or cue sheets led to a harried search and almost chance acquisition of substitute bicycles.  After a long afternoon of attempting to repair Simon’s bicycles, find helmets and maps, and learning that there were no bicycle shops in Kas we were disheartened and unsure of what to do.  By luck, chance, or divine intervention, as we walked from the town center to our hotel we found Izett and his shiny, new mountain bikes parked in front of his small storefront/bar.  Although he had intended to supplement his income by renting the bicycles to tourists looking for a diversion from Kas’ renowned water sports, he was more than happy to rent them to us for a week and to travel 200 miles to pick them up!  After the unpleasant break with Simon and many should of, could of, would of, observations we congratulated ourselves for not panicking and for quickly finding an alternative to Simon.  That night at dinner, we toasted our resilience and resourcefulness and fell into to bed feeling much more optimistic about our bicycle tour.

We were headed for Kalkan and then to Patara. The day’s forecast for high winds, with rising temperatures, didn’t disappoint.  We struggled to make our way up the coast with a steady headwind and gusts up to 25 miles an hour.  The knobby mountain bike tires hummed as they vibrated against the rough asphalt. The friction increased resistance and made it harder to pedal up the steady incline.   The shallow inlets whose color is the raison d’être for the “Turquoise Coast” tag, beckoned and we succumbed with a short dip.

Leaving the cobblestone road out of Patara we made our way inland through a busy industrial agricultural area. Miles of white tunnel-like structures—greenhouses—sheltered abundant crops of berries, tomatoes, corn, eggplant, zucchini and melons.  These tunnel greenhouses, the fastest growing segment of agricultural production in Turkey, provide a year round supply of fruits and vegetables, income and employment.

Unlike the touristic, coastal towns, the inland villages were hard-worn but active. Only the dogs lay still in the road, in deep sleep as we entered. Workers loaded cartons of tomatoes by hand into large transport trucks.  Families pulled up to small markets in cars and scooters, engines idling as a passenger ran in to buy a loaf of just-baked bread. Bearded men huddled around small tables in front of restaurants or in the plaza, smoking, chatting and playing backgammon. A woman beat just-shorn sheep’s wool on a concrete porch, preparing it for weaving.  The call to prayer echoed as we left town.

The ezan or Muslim call to prayer woke us in the pre-dawn of our first morning in Turkey.  We learned that this ethereal music and lyrics was the muezzin calling the faithful to God five times each day from the mosques’ minarets.  The mystical chant, now usually a recording, gave notice that we were where the east and west meet, in a country that, although secular, is 99% Muslim. In Turkey, people do not stream into the mosque at each call; some stop and turn to Mecca and pray while others  may simply be reminded of their spiritual tenets.

The ezan accompanied us on our ride; greeting us at mid-day from a small mosque in the village square and as we arrived at our destination in the late afternoon. In the towns and villages where we stayed the Imzak (the call two hours before dawn) often woke us.  Initially, the crowing roosters and baying dogs also roused by the call, made it difficult to go back to sleep, but we soon learned to ignore this early alarm clock.

Turning off the main road we left the wide Xanthos valley entering a pine forest and then rode into a narrower river valley.  The deserted road was lined with deep pink oleander bushes… natives of Turkey, they were an ever present border on every back road.  The Xanthos River was fast-moving and icy grey; its banks covered with yellowish rocks, the shore looked like salt flats from a distance.  Another climb and we entered an entirely changed landscape of harsh rocky cliffs and canyons. At the Saklikent Gorge, a 985-foot deep and 11 mile long slit cut through the Taurus Mountains we took a short but rugged river walk in turbulent waters and had lunch in one of the many tourist restaurants. We arrived at our destination The Mountain Lodge at the foot of the Taurus mountain range in a small farming village just below the ruins of Lycian town of Tlos. From poolside, we saw the coast and the city Fethiye where we would visit the next day.

Cyclists were an unusual site in Turkey. We saw only four other cyclists; an Australian man with his two teenage children and a German riding alone.  Despite our rarity, our interactions with locals were without exception friendly.  Greetings of merhaba (hello) were always returned.  Toddlers in their yard or on their porch waved and said bye-bye as we rode away. Students emerging from school practiced their English, responding with “hello” to our “merhaba”, and often added giggling, “Where are you going?” Our hosts at the small hotels where we stayed were friendly, interested in our ride and about our opinions of Turkey.  Most were couples, with one Turkish partner and one ex-pat (European or British). They plied us with historical background and often information about our route.

It is impossible to ride through this part of Turkey and not be immersed in centuries of history from Lycian ruins to traces of Trojans, Romans, Greeks, the Ottoman Empire, and the Ataturk era. A lunch in Fethiye, a modern, bustling harbor town built on the remains of the ancient city of Telmessos  was followed by a ride along Kaya Caddesi (the Rock Road) passing stone tombs and the ruins of a crusader‘s castle. It was a slow slog up the steep, winding road and for a few of us included pushing our bikes up what felt like nearly vertical inclines. We emerged from the dense forest at the top of the mountain to a view of the Kaya Valley; pastures dotted with farmhouses, the village of Keciler and a small mosque. Beyond the village, the ruins of Kaya Köy (a ghost town) climbed up the hills. For centuries, Anatolian Greeks (Greek Orthodox) lived in Kaya Köy alongside their Turkish (Muslim) neighbors until 1922.  A tragic consequence of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) was the evacuation of some 20,000 Greeks in a compulsory population exchange for Turks in Greece.  However, the Turks refused to move into the abandoned homes. Now only roofless vestiges of the 350 homes, churches, fountains and cisterns remain.

Our hosts at the Villa Rhapsody, Attilla and Jeanne greeted us with smiles and warm handshakes. After drinks, a swim and a lovely poolside dinner of local vegetables, fish and lamb, they recounted stories of Kaya Köy and directions for our hike to the deserted village and the beach town of Oludeniz on the other side of the mountain. We spent a “down day” exploring the ruins of Kaya Köy, hiking and relaxing on the beach. My beach reading was interrupted frequently by the more interesting goings-on around me.  Children laughing and screaming as the waves grabbed them, hang gliders swooping down from the cliffs above, boogie boarders, wind surfers and swimmers sharing the warm, crystal blue water.  I reflected too on the mingling of Turks and foreign tourists, of women in hijab or çarşaf (the Turkish equivalent of the burqa) frolicking side by side with those in bikinis and children of all ages.  The scene embodied the openness and diversity of the Turkish people we met. The next morning, after hugs and picture taking with Jeanne and Attilla we rode through their gate to continue our journey.

Road maps are scarce in Turkey making it difficult to locate the unmarked back roads that appeared abundant on Google maps. Fortunately, the main roads were wide and all had shoulders.  We found that most drivers were accustomed to slow moving vehicles, commonly scooters with two or three riders, crawling up the shoulder.  The Turks love their horns and honked as they passed us; friendly toots accompanied by waves and cheers of encouragement.

As it turned out, a greater issue was the road surface. Most of the roads were macadam—large broken stones covered in a sticky black asphalt substance, a rough surface for bicycling.  In the heat, the tar-like material softened and stuck in our cleats and shoes. Our knobby mountain bike tires cushioned the ride a bit but made riding up hills even more difficult.  And yes, there was significant elevation gain. Thwack, thwack, thwack, a slow trudge up what seemed like never ending inclines.  Sweating, stopping, sometimes walking, we realized that we had underestimated the length and grades of the route.  We decided that the Turks only had two grade signs—5% and 10%.  In fact, looking at the maps later there were several climbs with 10% to 15% grades.

In Dalyan, the proprietor of the Kilim Hotel, Emrah, chatted with us as we relaxed with gin and tonics in the outdoor bar. We spent the afternoon off our bikes, touring the remains of the Kaunos amphitheater (10th Century BC), the rock wall tombs along the river and a boat trip to Iztuzu Beach where we missed seeing the famed loggerhead turtles.  Emrah expressed interest in buying a new bike; he wondered what kind would be best.  We talked about where he wanted to ride, whether he wanted a road bike or a mountain bike and offered our advice.

“Where will you travel tomorrow, when you leave here?”  he asked.

We showed him our planned route, a 30-mile ride along the coast.

“What’s the best way to get our bikes across the Dalyan River? We understand that we can hire a boat”.

“Of course! There is a rowing boat service run by a family who will take all of you across and your bicycles without a problem.”

He continued: “…they take people even motor bikes across the river. They even carry them across on their small row boats so don’t worry, if the worst comes then a local fisherman will take you across in two minutes on his motor boat, there’s plenty of choice.”

Emrah thought there might be a better way out of town, but called a friend who cycles to confirm it.  He came back to our table and reported:

“My friend tells me you cannot go the way you planned. The military has that road restricted, no one is allowed there.”

The good news was that we got this information before riding 10 miles and then being turned back. The bad news? The alternate route was much longer, at least 60 miles with several long climbs.

We left the hotel earlier than planned and pedaled to the river where there was indeed a small boat.  The boatman piled all six bikes and riders into a 12-foot boat to cross the narrow but very deep river.  Off the boat, we resumed the ride up a rough-surfaced, forested mountain road.   Sixty miles is a long day’s ride for us, especially given the hills, traffic and construction that we encountered.  As the sun set, we arrived in Icmeler and after a few wrong turns found the Fortuna Beach Hotel.

Our final day of riding was on the Datca peninsula a lush green stiletto reaching into the water where the Aegean and Mediterranean meet.  Pastures alternate with fields of yellow, white and blue flowers, pine forests, olive groves and almond orchards. The shimmering Villa Asina rewarded our long ride and final climb into the town of Datca. Each individually decorated room with private terraces and sea views of Symi and Rhodes were luxurious respites.  On our second day in Datca we explored the ocean side ruins of Knidos and a walked through Datca’s old town.

On the ferry to Bodrum and our flight back to Istanbul and then home I ruminated.  Other than the steep, never-ending hills (and the Simon fiasco), there was absolutely nothing that I didn’t like about our trip and this country.  From our bicycle seats, we saw only a small part of Turkey but from that perspective we experienced the intersection of two worlds; an enchanting mix of people, history, culture, religion, food and scenery.

___________________

We did this ride in late May, early June 2012.  Much has changed in Turkey since then.

 

 

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Left Behind–Chile November 2014

The ride from Ralun to Ensenada was quick and dreary. The Rio Petrohue was steel grey and ominous, the treed landscape dark as we flew done the mountain road we had climbed yesterday.  The air was raw, the sky threatened rain, spitting and sprinkling as we headed toward Puerto Varas, our final destination on a 50-mile ride in the Lakes and Volcanoes district of Chile.

By the time we reached Ensenada there was a steady drizzle.  Our companions were two couples, Mike and Margaret and Gary and Anne. Long time friends, our ride in Chile was our ninth international DIY bicycle tour.  Our friends stopped for coffee and a snack at Cafeteria Delice, a roadside store/café, the windows covered with colorful pictures of Coke and various meal options. They parked their bikes under an overhang protected from the rain.  A few minutes behind them, Rich and I found a table near the others who were sitting together at a four top.  A busload of teens arrived as we ordered coffee, tea and a couple of cookies, slowing our progress.  After finishing our warming drinks, Rich went out to adjust his brakes and I followed, planning to put on another layer of clothes for warmth.  It started to rain harder and when I next looked up, the other four had crossed the road and were heading out of town.  They must have thought we were getting ready to leave too, when in fact we were still fiddling with our bikes and panniers.  Distressed, I quickly mounted my bike and started before Rich did.  I hurried to catch up with the group.

There was a road/separated bike path along Lake Llanqahue from Ensenada almost all the way to Puerto Varas so we anticipated easy riding to our destination.  The potential of a pleasant day’s ride was now compromised as the clouds descended and released a steady torrent.  This was the rain we had expected but had by and large avoided for the first four days of our ride.

I pedaled furiously trying to keep Anne’s and Gary’s bright pink and yellow rain jackets in sight. Within a few kilometers I lost them. I focused on the path ahead, trying to out run the rain, moving as quickly as I could. With my hood up under my helmet, there was little peripheral vision—almost impossible to look back without stopping—and I wasn’t stopping.  I was annoyed that the other four had ridden off without first checking to see if we were ready to go or making sure we were behind them.  We don’t always stay together in a pack when we ride, but usually whoever is in the lead, stops periodically to wait and ensure that everybody is okay, that there hasn’t been a mechanical breakdown, a wrong turn, a fall or other injury.  Gary is diabetic and occasionally his blood sugar is low or high and he needs to stop and refuel or take insulin.  Although he always urges us to go ahead, we wait…we’re generally not in a big rush.  Three of us also bring phones with global service.  Gary and I always have the phone on and close at hand.  Even with the global plans, calls are expensive so we generally text if we need to communicate.  In Chile, for the first time, we also downloaded Whats App a free world wide texting service.

I pumped on, through the heavy rain for 6 or 7 km (3-4 miles), never looking back, assuming that Rich was right behind me.  On level ground I often ride faster…slower on both sides of any climb.  Coming upon three men dressed in yellow jumpsuits repairing a broken railing on a small bridge on the path, I slowed to go out into the road and once past the construction stopped to wait for Rich.  I looked back—no Rich.  It was a straightaway with few obstructions.  Strange that I couldn’t see him.  I waited for three or four minutes but there was no yellow dot in the distance so I started back, watching the kilometers add up, thinking that we were really behind now, but expecting him to appear at any moment.  I saw a woman heading toward me, head down and bundled up to shield herself from the rain.  I stopped and in my broken Spanish asked “uh…un hombre en una bicicleta?” …had she seen a man on a bicycle coming this way?…“No, No” she replied.  I kept riding, at one point questioning myself—had Rich passed me somehow? Then I worried—had he taken a fall? hit by a car? Guilty thoughts because I hadn’t looked back or waited.  He had no phone. I thought that I should stop and text Gary…but what would I say? “Rich is lost”?

Finally, I spotted Rich.

“Oh my God—what happened?”

“I had a flat just out of town. Luckily, I found a shelter and changed the tire.  But with this damn pump I couldn’t get enough air in the tire… I have to keep stopping and pumping…Mike has better pump…where are they?”

“You’ve got me…they’re gone…I haven’t seen them since just out of town”

Relieved that we’d found each other, we started backtracking the 6K, the third time for me.  It occurred to me that we were now at least an hour behind the others and that I should text Gary. At 11:20 I texted on Whats App:

“Rich had flat. I didn’t know it for a long time went back now at marker 39K. Let us know when you stop.”

As we slogged through the rain, I continued my internal rant, “I can’t believe they didn’t stop and wait for us…how far did they go before they realized we weren’t there?”…then shame-faced…”but I didn’t stop or look back for Rich”…then righteously…”at least I stopped after 6 kilometers to check”.

At 11:45 Gary texted on Iphone Messages: “At lake view restaurant at 28k marker”

His message was displayed on the face of my phone.  I assumed he had seen my text.

At 12:02 PM I texted on Whats App: “Rich pumping tire at 30k. Order for us anything is fine”

The rain had stopped and the clouds lifted a bit to give us a view of the now glimmering lake. A few minutes later, as we rounded a rocky outcrop we saw Gary biking towards us.  They’d been at the warm little restaurant for almost an hour.

Gary rode up to us; “What happened?”

“Rich had a flat…Didn’t you get my text?”

“No, did you get mine?”

“Just the one saying you were at a restaurant…I responded to it”.

“I didn’t get it so I figured I better come look for you…we’re just up here a ways.  We ordered for you.”

“I sent a Whats App text…”

“I didn’t get anything on Whats App…I sent mine from my Iphone messages.”

Damn…using Whats App seemed like a good idea at the time but evidently I relied too much on technology!

As we entered the cozy, little Lake View Cafe, our firends  greeted us heartily:

“You made it…what happened?”

“I had a flat just outside of Ensenada…couldn’t get my pump to work”

“Could have used yours”

I piped in, “We were way behind you anyway, we didn’t know you were leaving.”

“We ordered for you.”

“We’ve been here for an hour or so but were waiting for you before ordering.”

The lunch was comforting and delicious, chicken and avocado sandwiches with piping hot French fries.  The proprietors seemed particularly friendly and concerned about us.

As we left, Margaret asked another customer in the parking lot to take our picture…together. The rain began again and we were once again cycling briskly. This time, we stayed together and whoever was in the lead, stopped periodically.

 

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Left Behind–Chile November 2014

The ride from Ralun to Ensenada was quick and dreary. The Rio Petrohue was steel grey and ominous, the treed landscape dark as we flew done the mountain road we had climbed yesterday.  The air was raw, the sky threatened rain, spitting and sprinkling as we headed toward Puerto Varas, our final destination on a 50-mile ride in the Lakes and Volcanoes district of Chile.

By the time we reached Ensenada there was a steady drizzle.  Our companions were two couples, Mike and Margaret and Gary and Anne. Long time friends, our ride in Chile was our ninth international DIY bicycle tour.  Our friends stopped for coffee and a snack at Cafeteria Delice, a roadside store/café, the windows covered with colorful pictures of Coke and various meal options. They parked their bikes under an overhang protected from the rain.  A few minutes behind them, Rich and I found a table near the others who were sitting together at a four top.  A busload of teens arrived as we ordered coffee, tea and a couple of cookies, slowing our progress.  After finishing our warming drinks, Rich went out to adjust his brakes and I followed, planning to put on another layer of clothes for warmth.  It started to rain harder and when I next looked up, the other four had crossed the road and were heading out of town.  They must have thought we were getting ready to leave too, when in fact we were still fiddling with our bikes and panniers.  Distressed, I quickly mounted my bike and started before Rich did.  I hurried to catch up with the group.

There was a road/separated bike path along Lake Llanqahue from Ensenada almost all the way to Puerto Varas so we anticipated easy riding to our destination.  The potential of a pleasant day’s ride was now compromised as the clouds descended and released a steady torrent.  This was the rain we had expected but had by and large avoided for the first four days of our ride.

I pedaled furiously trying to keep Anne’s and Gary’s bright pink and yellow rain jackets in sight. Within a few kilometers I lost them. I focused on the path ahead, trying to out run the rain, moving as quickly as I could. With my hood up under my helmet, there was little peripheral vision—almost impossible to look back without stopping—and I wasn’t stopping.  I was annoyed that the other four had ridden off without first checking to see if we were ready to go or making sure we were behind them.  We don’t always stay together in a pack when we ride, but usually whoever is in the lead, stops periodically to wait and ensure that everybody is okay, that there hasn’t been a mechanical breakdown, a wrong turn, a fall or other injury.  Gary is diabetic and occasionally his blood sugar is low or high and he needs to stop and refuel or take insulin.  Although he always urges us to go ahead, we wait…we’re generally not in a big rush.  Three of us also bring phones with global service.  Gary and I always have the phone on and close at hand.  Even with the global plans, calls are expensive so we generally text if we need to communicate.  In Chile, for the first time, we also downloaded Whats App a free world wide texting service.

I pumped on, through the heavy rain for 6 or 7 km (3-4 miles), never looking back, assuming that Rich was right behind me.  On level ground I often ride faster…slower on both sides of any climb.  Coming upon three men dressed in yellow jumpsuits repairing a broken railing on a small bridge on the path, I slowed to go out into the road and once past the construction stopped to wait for Rich.  I looked back—no Rich.  It was a straightaway with few obstructions.  Strange that I couldn’t see him.  I waited for three or four minutes but there was no yellow dot in the distance so I started back, watching the kilometers add up, thinking that we were really behind now, but expecting him to appear at any moment.  I saw a woman heading toward me, head down and bundled up to shield herself from the rain.  I stopped and in my broken Spanish asked “uh…un hombre en una bicicleta?” …had she seen a man on a bicycle coming this way?…“No, No” she replied.  I kept riding, at one point questioning myself—had Rich passed me somehow? Then I worried—had he taken a fall? hit by a car? Guilty thoughts because I hadn’t looked back or waited.  He had no phone. I thought that I should stop and text Gary…but what would I say? “Rich is lost”?

Finally, I spotted Rich.

“Oh my God—what happened?”

“I had a flat just out of town. Luckily, I found a shelter and changed the tire.  But with this damn pump I couldn’t get enough air in the tire… I have to keep stopping and pumping…Mike has better pump…where are they?”

“You’ve got me…they’re gone…I haven’t seen them since just out of town”

Relieved that we’d found each other, we started backtracking the 6K, the third time for me.  It occurred to me that we were now at least an hour behind the others and that I should text Gary. At 11:20 I texted on Whats App:

“Rich had flat. I didn’t know it for a long time went back now at marker 39K. Let us know when you stop.”

As we slogged through the rain, I continued my internal rant, “I can’t believe they didn’t stop and wait for us…how far did they go before they realized we weren’t there?”…then shame-faced…”but I didn’t stop or look back for Rich”…then righteously…”at least I stopped after 6 kilometers to check”.

At 11:45 Gary texted on Iphone Messages: “At lake view restaurant at 28k marker”

His message was displayed on the face of my phone.  I assumed he had seen my text.

At 12:02 PM I texted on Whats App: “Rich pumping tire at 30k. Order for us anything is fine”

The rain had stopped and the clouds lifted a bit to give us a view of the now glimmering lake. A few minutes later, as we rounded a rocky outcrop we saw Gary biking towards us.  They’d been at the warm little restaurant for almost an hour.

Gary rode up to us; “What happened?”

“Rich had a flat…Didn’t you get my text?”

“No, did you get mine?”

“Just the one saying you were at a restaurant…I responded to it”.

“I didn’t get it so I figured I better come look for you…we’re just up here a ways.  We ordered for you.”

“I sent a Whats App text…”

“I didn’t get anything on Whats App…I sent mine from my Iphone messages.”

Damn…using Whats App seemed like a good idea at the time but evidently I relied too much on technology!

As we entered the cozy, little Lake View Cafe, our firends  greeted us heartily:

“You made it…what happened?”

“I had a flat just outside of Ensenada…couldn’t get my pump to work”

“Could have used yours”

I piped in, “We were way behind you anyway, we didn’t know you were leaving.”

“We ordered for you.”

“We’ve been here for an hour or so but were waiting for you before ordering.”

The lunch was comforting and delicious, chicken and avocado sandwiches with piping hot French fries.  The proprietors seemed particularly friendly and concerned about us.

As we left, Margaret asked another customer in the parking lot to take our picture…together. The rain began again and we were once again cycling briskly. This time, we stayed together and whoever was in the lead, stopped periodically.

 

 

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An Accident of Sorts

Our arrival in Zadar, Croatia was an accident of sorts in the sense that it was unplanned, unexpected and upsetting.  Like any accident, my version is only one of many, as inherently flawed as any eyewitness account.

During May and early June the ferry from the island of Mali Losinj to Zadar operates only twice a week, Monday and Friday at 4PM, arriving in Zadar at 10:45 PM. When my husband and I and two other couples planned our bike trip  on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia in early June, we planned around the shoulder season ferry schedule from the island of Mali Losinj to Zadar. The twice a week ferry would arrive at 10:45 PM. Because it would be dark when we docked and we didn’t have lights on our bikes, Gary and Anne painstakingly found a small hotel, Pansion Maria, just two blocks from the ferry terminal.  Zoran, our host provided a detailed map of the area and Gary confirmed the directions and our arrival time of 11 PM via email.

As the ferry approached the coast, Rich commented that it looked like we were going past Zadar’s city center.  The rest of us all agreed that it must be another nearby city’s lights that we observed.  The ferry docked in a dimly lit, almost vacant, industrial area.  Confused and increasingly uncomfortable, we began to think that those lights were indeed a forewarning.  Some of our fellow passengers departed in a bus, most were picked up by cars and taxis.  Another cyclist, a Croat we’d spoken with on the ferry, took off into the night before we could ask him where we were.  Indeed, before we knew we needed to know where we were.

Using my new smart phone, equipped with global roaming capability, Gary called Zoran.  He assured us that we need only ride over the foot bridge, turn right and go two blocks.  We followed the directions despite signs that indicated that the city center was to our left and we were clearly not on a foot bridge but on a four lane road with no sidewalk.  In the dark with no lights in a deserted industrial parking area elevated tension levels.  Gary remembered a small flashlight that he  pulled out of his pannier, but still,  we all knew that none of us knew where we were.  We continued over the bridge and on to what soon became apparent was an entrance to a freeway with no shoulder.  We got off the road and turned back walking our bikes through the brush on the side of the road.  All, that is, but Mike, who rode his bike down the wrong side of the road seeing no need to walk.

Back at the base of the bridge, we decided to turn left along a more brightly lit street. Rich’s non-stop, confident, but unfounded, speculations comforted no one and irritated some.  As was his way in a crisis, Mike took off looking for signs or other directional clues which only served to make everyone else anxious. Where was he? What was he doing?  Didn’t he know that no one could see him with only reflector on his bike?

Gary and Anne felt responsible because they booked the hotel…that was clearly not where they thought it was (despite the map). Gary stoically moved toward the lights. Anne, usually the group’s emotional ballast, was uncharacteristically beginning to melt down, perhaps on the verge of tears.  I was trying to keep Rich quiet, and Margaret was doing her spousal best to keep Mike with the group. Confident that we’d find our way eventually, we were apprehensive about the toll on our tired bodies and fragile morale.

At the next intersection, we called Zoran again.  We told him that his directions had led us onto a freeway and that we were on a big road near what looked like a Mercedes car dealership.  We couldn’t see any street name signs to give him a better idea of where we were.  He couldn’t understand why we weren’t already at his hotel.  We followed occasional signs for the City Center.  We called again, unconcerned about the expensive global roaming charges.  Zoran continued to say “… follow the signs to the Center, we are only blocks away”.  As we rode on, streetlights were more numerous and for a long stretch, we rode in a car-free lane technically closed for repair.  We were silent and focused; tensions eased a bit.  Gary and I continued to call Zoran probably more to comfort us than to get the repeated but not relevant directions. At last, after riding in the semi-dark for almost six miles, more than an hour with stops, we reached a sign indicating a left turn to the City Center.

We were now on Zoran’s original map.  We turned, then stopped and asked a taxi driver if we were on the right road to reach Pansion Maria.  “Yes, yes, stay on this street and then bear right onto Put Petrića”.  We were in a residential neighborhood…could this be right?  Were we lost again? As we approached the address, we saw Zoran, in the street waiting for us, waving us into the driveway.  It was 12:30 AM.  Zoran welcomed us and showed us to our rooms.  He told us that he didn’t realize we were coming from Mali Losinj…”that ferry hasn’t come to the City Center dock for over three years.”

Exhausted we fell into bed.  Only the next day did we realize that it was also an “accident” that we hadn’t thought to try a previously unused application on my smart phone…the GPS!
Zadar, Croatia—June 13, 2011

Written—October 17, 2011

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A Day in Sardinia

We started the day worried about rain and distance. The day’s ride would be longer than any previous one on this trip and the forecast called for rain all day.  It was windy and cloudy as we left Hotel Luci del Faro in Calasetta, an isolated rural village on the north end of Sant’ Antioco Island, Sardinia. On the second to the last day of a 10-day bicycle trip six long time friends from Arlington, Virginia were making our way to the island’s only city, Sant’ Antioco where we would cross a bridge that had connected Sant’ Antioco to mainland Sardinia since Roman times.  Our route would avoid main roads and travel along the rugged southwestern coast of Sardinia ending at a resort hotel 40 miles south.  Our moods seemed almost as damp and dreary as the day.  I was in the middle of the line of fully loaded bikes visible only because of the colorful raincoats of the six riders.

As I topped a slight incline and turned onto the cobblestone road into the city, I heard a clunk. I stopped immediately. One of my bike spokes broke earlier on the trip, with no spares I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t broken another.  Mike and Gary rode up behind me; they looked and the spokes seemed to be intact so I started again.  After a few pedal strokes, the bike lurched to a stop with an even louder, more ominous, grinding racket. Mike looked and found that the derailleur was in the spoke. He gingerly removed it waiting for my husband Rich, our go-to mechanic, to arrive and put it back together.  Rich inspected the bike and found another broken spoke and as he tried to reinsert the derailleur (the gear changing mechanism or transmission of a bike) he realized the socket was stripped. He gerryrigged it so that I could ride without gears, and we went in search of a bike store. Fortunately, Mike remembered seeing one when we passed through the city the day before. It was on the other side of the city but eventually we found EuroMoto. The shop was dark, we could barely snake our way to the counter avoiding the abundance of bicycle and motor scooter parts, accessories and clothes.  A young woman behind the counter asked if she could help us.  We began to explain our predicament but she signaled us to wait, went into a back room, and returned with a mechanic. Using Margaret’s Italian and Rich’s gestures and mechanical know-how they explained the problem to the mechanic. The mechanic, Gianluca, was confident that he could replace the spokes in an hour. We decided to find a Supermercado and buy our lunch supplies—tomatoes, fresh bread, sharp Pecorino cheese, cookies and wine.

As promised, the spokes were replaced in an hour but after putting the wheel back on Gianluca realized that the gears weren’t shifting correctly, probably the reason for the broken spokes. Over the next hour and half he essentially rebuilt the derailleur using spare parts he had on hand.  While he worked, we hung out on the sidewalk outside the shop, kindles and iPads were unpacked and read, and we chatted and watched Sardinian daily life pass by.  The aroma of coffee was replaced by baking pizzas as time elapsed.  Underlying our relaxed appearance was increasing worry that we had before us a long, possibly wet ride.  Anne suggested that to make the best use of our time, we could eat our lunch in the waterside  park a few blocks away.  We left Rich at EuroMoto.  I rode his bike and we set out our lunch on a damp picnic table.  Ten minutes after we started eating, Rich appeared on my fully repaired bike greeted by a chorus of applause and hallelujahs.

We took off, anticipating a downpour at any moment. We crossed the bridge out of town and took a short cut through the salt flats on the mainland—a  “secret”  alternative to the much busier main road shared with us two bicyclists from Alaska we met earlier at the Supermarcado.The wind had finally turned to our advantage, at our backs and ferocious.  The Mistral from the northwest is the dominant wind in Sardinia, especially in winter and spring.  In planning our 10-day route, we chose to ride from north to south to take advantage of this generally reliable strong tailwind. Instead we confronted eight days of headwinds hammering us from the south and southwest.  Flocks of bathing pink flamingos were our only companions through the salt flats.  A large salt mine with mountains of salt and loading equipment loomed in the distance, salt ponds, some strangely colored red by algae, lined the narrow, bumpy road.  We missed a turn at the salt mine, ended up on a rough gravel road and had to back track.  Even with that, the route was faster and more pleasant than riding on the main road.  We were making good time, propelled as much by the wind as by our pedaling.

After traversing the salt flats, we returned to our original route.  The terrain was rolling, hills covered with grain and yellow and white wildflowers rippling in the strong breeze.  The rain held off and the sun occasionally sneaked through the cloud cover. We turned inland and after stopping to confer about the next turn, Rich and I took off.  We flew down the road, the friendly wind carrying us along. When we got to the next turn, we stopped to wait for the others to catch up.  I was mildly irritated that they hadn’t followed us and wondered what conversation I was missing out on.  We waited.

“Where could they be—we weren’t that far ahead.”

“Do you think something happened?”

“Maybe somebody had a flat tire or a problem with their bike.”

I texted Gary. To be honest, we were reluctant to backtrack given that it meant  riding uphill into the wind. When Gary didn’t reply, we rode back.  As I approached the group, Mike flew past me and didn’t stop. Despite my shouted  “…what happened? What’s going on?” Irritated at his brush off, I thought, “What’s up with that?”   As we cycled up to them, Margaret, Anne and Gary looked grim.

“What happened?

“Mike took a bad fall.  His bike slipped off the pavement edge, when he tried to correct he fell and went slid across the pavement. It was bad, there was a pretty deep cut on his elbow and his knee, hands and ankle were really scrapped up.”

Anne continued,  “We convinced him to take some ibuprofen but he really should have stitches on his elbow.”

Mike had large band-aids, gauze and ointment so he cleaned up as much as possible, got back on his bike and took off.  I now understood that he was probably mad at himself for falling and or embarrassed.  This kind of thing didn’t happen to Mike.

After catching up to Mike, we cycled for 30 minutes or so and then stopped in the sleepy village of Sant’ Anna Arresi.  Mike wanted to stop at a Pharmacia to stock up on bandages and tape and perhaps get some medical advice.  Regrettably, it was 3:45 and most stores are closed for siesta between 1 and 5.

Anne said, “Why don’t we just wait until the Pharmacia opens, this is the last real town before we get to the hotel.”

I piped in, “Actually, why not bag our reservations at the hotel on the coast and stay here in Sant’ Anna Aressi for the night?  It looks like there are plenty of places to choose from.”

Mike would not hear of changing plans on his account.  Instead, we all agreed to stop at a gelato shop for a short break before continuing and skipped the pharmacia.

The rest of the afternoon’s ride was difficult with more elevation gain than we expected, but the coastal vistas were stunning.  Deep blue water and rolling white caps crashed into pristine white sand beaches and rocky granite outcrops.  A double guardrail protected us from the sheer cliff.  The hills were a “maquis”, a thicket of shrubs, oaks, junipers and cypress grew at a permanent 45 degree angle because of the prevailing wind.  As the sun dropped toward the water the smell of the sea mingled with the rich greens and herbs.

Margaret and Anne didn’t appreciate the wind even though it was at our backs…for them it was too heavy and made riding feel unsteady and a bit out of control.  I, on the other hand, thought I would not have made it up the hills but for the wind’s lift. As evening approached, there was worry. Had we taken a wrong turn?  The road and terrain became more desolate and the only hint of life were soaring hawks and falcons and an occasional sheep.  In exhausted silence we followed the steep cliff side road.  No markers or signs for the Hotel Baia delle Ginistre (Bay of the Broom) reassured us.  Then suddenly, after cresting one last hill we saw the hotel buildings and gardens stretching down to the Mediterranean.

A tall, gray haired woman, in gray slacks and sweater, wearing darkly tinted glasses, appeared to be waiting for us as we approached the hotel.  She showed us to three rooms overlooking the gardens and the sea. Although she spoke only Italian, she described the rooms, the keys and the gardens at great length.  Margaret translated important details.  The gray lady told us about breakfast, time and location.  Since it was almost 6 PM, we asked about dinner, where the hotel restaurant was and what time it opened.  The hotel website advertised, “At the resort you will find a self-service restaurant, a rooftop à la Carte, a piano bar and a poolside bar during the day in the square amphitheater.”  Evidently, that is only during the high season, which would begin in a week or so. Our guide shook her head vehemently and said, “No, no cena (dinner)!”

Taken aback we asked simultaneously, “Where’s the nearest restaurant?”  Then, “How far is it from here.”  We all understood when she answered, “oh…cinque-diecito chilometros” (5-10 KM).  Once again, our spirits fell.  The long day’s ride had depleted our supplies; we didn’t have any food, not even nuts or fruit.  Only Gary, who is diabetic, had few rolls he’d kept from breakfast and a candy bar in case his blood sugar was low. I felt particularly bad since I had booked the hotel…why hadn’t they said there was no food on the premises?  Perhaps we could buy some of the breakfast food for our dinner I thought desperately.

Our dismay was evident. There was no way that we could walk or ride our bicycles to the restaurant on the winding coastal road that we had just traveled.  We talked among ourselves and then the woman came over to us and said to Margaret “…un veicolo che uno degli uomini potrebbe guidare al villaggio”, that is “I could lend you a vehicle that one of the men could drive into the village”.  We practically fell to our knees thanking our new friend, saying, “si,certo, si, grazi, grazi!”  Relieved, we sat in the empty hotel restaurant, the gray lady served us beer and wine (except for Mike who was cleaning his wounds and re-dressing them) and discussed the day’s events as the golden red sun fell through the once threatening clouds into the sea.

Showered and somewhat revived, we left for dinner in our borrowed vehicle, a bright blue miniature Piaggio van with a puzzling advertisement on the side: “Figlie Del Silenzio” “Daughters of Silence”. Gary offered to be the designated driver (given the winding, unfamiliar roads) and we piled into the mini- station wagon, Anne folded into the very small rear compartment. Following the “gray lady’s directions we reached the only restaurant in the small fishing village, Trattoria da Gianni di Giovanni Loi, tucked into a bay with windows facing the water.

The only customers in the restaurant, we feasted on fried calamari, cuddle fish and black tagliatelle, grilled vegetables, pastas and wine. We watched the glimmering moon rise illuminating the black sea.  Anne raised her glass and toasted:

“…here’s to all the things that could have happened today but didn’t…Sue’s bike wasn’t permanently disabled, there were no cars going by when Mike skidded across the road, we didn’t go to bed hungry…and it didn’t rain!”

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The Sardinia Hill Story

We had tension for breakfast at the Eleonora B&B. We were in Oristano beginning the fifth day of our 10-day cycling trip along the western edge of Sardinia. As he served our warm bread, almond pastries, prosciutto and eggs Andre, the host, asked:  “Where will you ride this day?”

Six answered in unison “To Arbus”.

“How will you go? What road will you take?” Mike spread out the map and showed him our planned route.

“Oh that way will be terrible to cycle, lots of traffic and very boring—even dangerous,” he said. “You should take the road over the mountains and along the coast, the Costa Verde—it’s beautiful—molto bello e scenico!” !

Everyone reacted … talking all at once, straining to see the map. Mike immediately declared that he and Margaret would take the new route. Rich pulled his computer out to check the distance and elevations. Anne expressed irritation that Mike was willing to take a stranger’s advice and make a route change at the last minute. Gary went to pack. I was dismayed because it meant more climbing—another 1,300-foot elevation gain— a potentially “easy” day was morphing into a long, difficult one. I held onto the thought that we could always split up for the day—Rich and I and possibly Anne and Gary, taking the original route.

We wheeled our loaded bikes out the heavy medieval doors of the Eleonora and onto the town’s central piazza. After some testy back and forth about the merits of our alternatives we settled on a plan to ride to the turnoff point, the town of Arborea, and make our final route decision there. We left the lovely square a bit grumpy and negotiated our way through Oristano’s morning traffic. Our stress levels mounted as we took several wrong turns on our way out of town, lost before we’d even begun the day’s ride. Finally, Margaret approached  an older gentleman on a battered bicycle weighed down with bags of produce slung over his handlebars. She asked him in Italian for directions to Arborea. He motioned us to follow. After eight miles riding at a faster clip than we would have expected, he abruptly turned around, pointed toward the mountains, and waved good-bye. “Ciao!”

It was a busy, gritty highway, with fast cars and trucks. Sparse but flowering bushes and an occasional canal interrupted the flat plains. A pine forest lined the road as we approached Arborea. It was just before noon, we needed food for lunch and located a small market on the main street. “I’ll stay with the bikes; I’m fine with whatever you get.” I said, plopping down on the stone steps across from the market, “guarding” the bikes and considering my options. I knew that after the morning’s ride, everyone else, even Rich, would prefer the more scenic route. It was hard to argue for the alternative despite my growing trepidation about going over the mountains.

Sardinia was our eighth international self-planned bicycling tour. The trips are a highlight of every year. My husband, Rich and I bike with two other couples, Anne and Gary and Mike and Margaret—longtime friends, all in our sixties and then some. Each cycling trip is an intimate experience in a small area of an unfamiliar country, with no barriers or filters between the landscape, the people, the history and us. We share the adventures, road conditions, weather, exercise, and no-guilt indulgence in unlimited exploration of local cuisine. We negotiate, ignore or tolerate differences of opinion, style and idiosyncrasies. We know each other well but there are always new insights, challenges and surprises.

My friends are mountain goats in comparison to me. I try to start first, but despite this advantage , they pass me. They may struggle but they always make the summit before I do. They find it more difficult to stop and walk their bikes whereas I have pushed my loaded bike up a portion of many long, steeply graded hills. They wait at the top, taking advantage of the respite after a challenging ascent. Rich usually hangs back with me. On especially difficult climbs, he has been known to reach the crest then walk back and ride my bike to the top. Embarrassed? No. Frustrated? Yes. Only I am judging.

Every year I seek different strategies to conquer the hills—my mental and physical antagonist—counting pedal strokes, a different seat or pedal position, working out pre-ride to get in shape. I take spinning classes to improve my cardio performance and endurance. I was determined that Sardinia was going to be different and I amped up my preparation.

Lightening the weight of bicycle and gear is a typical practice to make “climbing” easier. Most cyclists focus on lightweight equipment, especially the bike, but my theory is that ten pounds is the same whether taken off the bicycle frame or the rider. And so, my first strategy was to lose pounds and maintain a lower weight. I lost almost fifteen pounds. I was pleased and hopeful that it would make a difference. I pared down my packing list— fewer clothes, just one pair of off-the-bike sandals—only the essentials. I went to spin class five times a week, sometimes twice a day. I didn’t train outside, partly due to weather and work, but mostly because I didn’t want to struggle or worse, not make it up a hill on a training ride and get discouraged before the ride began.

I googled “how to make biking hills easy.” I learned that although there were many theories about consumables that may have the potential to make cycling hills physically less difficult, “experts” seemed to agree that most don’t work. Only a few reportedly had some effect, like mega doses of caffeine (4-8 cups of coffee) and baking soda. Caffeine can improve stamina and endurance while stimulating the nervous system and the baking soda may decrease the burn or lactic acid buildup in your legs. I don’t drink coffee and my morning drink of choice, tea, doesn’t contain enough caffeine. I briefly considered, then decided against, caffeine tablets. I did pack a bag of baking soda; the recommended teaspoon per day weighed almost nothing. At about the same time, a friend emailed to wish me well on the trip and referencing my obsession with hill climbing, hoped that I would “…find a magical mantra to get me up those hills.”

I found a blog article titled, “Tuned In To Cycling—Hill Climbing 101” about the joys of biking hills. It suggested that hills were, in fact, the best thing about cycling. The author offered  techniques, tips and stories about his experiences. What caught my eye was a story about an AIDS ride that he supported. He was helping many inexperienced riders and in particular, a woman he described as “…very much overweight and out of shape…like maybe 100 pounds overweight.”

She was on a hybrid bike and struggled as she made her way up the longest and steepest hill on the 340-mile ride. Many riders dreaded this climb; crowds lined the road to encourage them and a  sound system blasted out Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” The woman didn’t think she’d make it and the author didn’t either, but he stayed with her and urged her on “…just 10 feet more.” She cried, she sweated. He couldn’t figure out how she stayed upright, she was going so slowly, but she did. With 30 feet to go, she realized that she would make it to the top. She was amazed and ecstatic, and so was her supporter. She had achieved what she thought was impossible and the writer/coach said that the look that came over her face at that instant was so beautiful and so pure that it made every moment worth it. I wanted to experience that feeling.

The decision made to go over the mountains to the Costa Verde (Green Coast), we rode through fallow fields lined with eucalyptus trees. The wind was strong enough to deliver the pungent scent of livestock although none was in sight. We entered a small, tattered fishing village then crossed a wide lagoon on a concrete bridge leaving the flat land behind us. A  small wooden shelter protecting a statue and shrine to the Virgin Mary provided a windscreen and a bench to prepare our lunch–Pecorino-Sardo cheese, tomatoes, strawberries and bread. We lingered in the warming sun, until storm clouds gathered in the west. We quickly re-packed our bags and continued.

Soon enough the climb began. It was gradual at first and then steepened. The wind was fierce at times and coming head on. As the afternoon and the climb wore on, we rode into a torrential downpour. The driving rain pelted us,  made more dramatic by wind gusts as we rounded each turn. The storm lasted only 20 minutes or so, but by then  we were drenched. We stopped to shed our rain gear and kept riding. The climb continued. The wind became a menacing distraction. I barely noticed the hills dotted with goats grazing, or the cliffs and “molto bello” seacoast far below. The aroma of an herbal potpourri from the wet maquis, a foam green, wild, shrub climbing up from the sea, filled the air. Now at each turn I encountered another steep ascent. I was drained. My lungs felt like they might burst. I tried to remember to loosen my death grip on the handlebars, to relax and to breathe. My thighs screamed, quads burned, smoldering with every pedal stroke. The teaspoon of baking soda had no appreciable effect.

But I found my “magic mantra”. When I thought that I couldn’t go another inch, when I thought I couldn’t pedal one more stroke, when I thought I was going so slowly that the bike would topple I said:

“If the fat lady could make it, I can too.”

“If she could push one more pedal stroke, I can too.”

“If she stayed upright on her bike I can too.”

I said this over and over again as I made my way up every rise, each steep, never ending grade.

Finally, through the oak trees, I glimpsed my friends waiting, recovering at the high point, a cross roads in the deserted mining town of Montevecchio. I was going to make it! Riding all the way, no walking — something I didn’t think possible earlier in the day. At the crossroad, I stopped to chat and high five. I took in the view, the sun glistening on the treetops and the crumbling buildings of a once vibrant mining complex, and savored my success. I caught my breath, drank some water and refastened my helmet. Then the “fat lady” and I flew down the shimmering, winding road.

 

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A Day in Sardinia

We started the day worried about rain and distance. The day’s ride would be longer than any previous one on this trip and the forecast called for rain all day.  It was windy and cloudy as we left Hotel Luci del Faro in Calasetta, an isolated rural village on the north end of Sant’ Antioco Island, Sardinia. On the second to the last day of a 10-day bicycle trip six long time friends from Arlington, Virginia were making our way to the island’s only city, Sant’ Antioco where we would cross a bridge that had connected Sant’ Antioco to mainland Sardinia since Roman times.  Our route would avoid main roads and travel along the rugged southwestern coast of Sardinia ending at a resort hotel 40 miles south.  Our moods seemed almost as damp and dreary as the day.  I was in the middle of the line of fully loaded bikes visible only because of the colorful raincoats of the six riders.

As I topped a slight incline and turned onto the cobblestone road into the city, I heard a clunk. I stopped immediately. One of my bike spokes broke earlier on the trip, with no spares I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t broken another.  Mike and Gary rode up behind me; they looked and the spokes seemed to be intact so I started again.  After a few pedal strokes, the bike lurched to a stop with an even louder, more ominous, grinding racket. Mike looked and found that the derailleur was in the spoke. He gingerly removed it waiting for my husband Rich, our go-to mechanic, to arrive and put it back together.  Rich inspected the bike and found another broken spoke and as he tried to reinsert the derailleur (the gear changing mechanism or transmission of a bike) he realized the socket was stripped. He gerryrigged it so that I could ride without gears, and we went in search of a bike store. Fortunately, Mike remembered seeing one when we passed through the city the day before. It was on the other side of the city but eventually we found EuroMoto. The shop was dark, we could barely snake our way to the counter avoiding the abundance of bicycle and motor scooter parts, accessories and clothes.  A young woman behind the counter asked if she could help us.  We began to explain our predicament but she signaled us to wait, went into a back room, and returned with a mechanic. Using Margaret’s Italian and Rich’s gestures and mechanical know-how they explained the problem to the mechanic. The mechanic, Gianluca, was confident that he could replace the spokes in an hour. We decided to find a Supermercado and buy our lunch supplies—tomatoes, fresh bread, sharp Pecorino cheese, cookies and wine.

As promised, the spokes were replaced in an hour but after putting the wheel back on Gianluca realized that the gears weren’t shifting correctly, probably the reason for the broken spokes. Over the next hour and half he essentially rebuilt the derailleur using spare parts he had on hand.  While he worked, we hung out on the sidewalk outside the shop, kindles and iPads were unpacked and read, and we chatted and watched Sardinian daily life pass by.  The aroma of coffee was replaced by baking pizzas as time elapsed.  Underlying our relaxed appearance was increasing worry that we had before us a long, possibly wet ride.  Anne suggested that to make the best use of our time, we could eat our lunch in the waterside  park a few blocks away.  We left Rich at EuroMoto.  I rode his bike and we set out our lunch on a damp picnic table.  Ten minutes after we started eating, Rich appeared on my fully repaired bike greeted by a chorus of applause and hallelujahs.

We took off, anticipating a downpour at any moment. We crossed the bridge out of town and took a short cut through the salt flats on the mainland—a  “secret”  alternative to the much busier main road shared with us two bicyclists from Alaska we met earlier at the Supermarcado.The wind had finally turned to our advantage, at our backs and ferocious.  The Mistral from the northwest is the dominant wind in Sardinia, especially in winter and spring.  In planning our 10-day route, we chose to ride from north to south to take advantage of this generally reliable strong tailwind. Instead we confronted eight days of headwinds hammering us from the south and southwest.  Flocks of bathing pink flamingos were our only companions through the salt flats.  A large salt mine with mountains of salt and loading equipment loomed in the distance, salt ponds, some strangely colored red by algae, lined the narrow, bumpy road.  We missed a turn at the salt mine, ended up on a rough gravel road and had to back track.  Even with that, the route was faster and more pleasant than riding on the main road.  We were making good time, propelled as much by the wind as by our pedaling.

After traversing the salt flats, we returned to our original route.  The terrain was rolling, hills covered with grain and yellow and white wildflowers rippling in the strong breeze.  The rain held off and the sun occasionally sneaked through the cloud cover. We turned inland and after stopping to confer about the next turn, Rich and I took off.  We flew down the road, the friendly wind carrying us along. When we got to the next turn, we stopped to wait for the others to catch up.  I was mildly irritated that they hadn’t followed us and wondered what conversation I was missing out on.  We waited.

“Where could they be—we weren’t that far ahead.”

“Do you think something happened?”

“Maybe somebody had a flat tire or a problem with their bike.”

I texted Gary. To be honest, we were reluctant to backtrack given that it meant  riding uphill into the wind. When Gary didn’t reply, we rode back.  As I approached the group, Mike flew past me and didn’t stop. Despite my shouted  “…what happened? What’s going on?” Irritated at his brush off, I thought, “What’s up with that?”   As we cycled up to them, Margaret, Anne and Gary looked grim.

“What happened?

“Mike took a bad fall.  His bike slipped off the pavement edge, when he tried to correct he fell and went slid across the pavement. It was bad, there was a pretty deep cut on his elbow and his knee, hands and ankle were really scrapped up.”

Anne continued,  “We convinced him to take some ibuprofen but he really should have stitches on his elbow.”

Mike had large band-aids, gauze and ointment so he cleaned up as much as possible, got back on his bike and took off.  I now understood that he was probably mad at himself for falling and or embarrassed.  This kind of thing didn’t happen to Mike.

After catching up to Mike, we cycled for 30 minutes or so and then stopped in the sleepy village of Sant’ Anna Arresi.  Mike wanted to stop at a Pharmacia to stock up on bandages and tape and perhaps get some medical advice.  Regrettably, it was 3:45 and most stores are closed for siesta between 1 and 5.

Anne said, “Why don’t we just wait until the Pharmacia opens, this is the last real town before we get to the hotel.”

I piped in, “Actually, why not bag our reservations at the hotel on the coast and stay here in Sant’ Anna Aressi for the night?  It looks like there are plenty of places to choose from.”

Mike would not hear of changing plans on his account.  Instead, we all agreed to stop at a gelato shop for a short break before continuing and skipped the pharmacia.

The rest of the afternoon’s ride was difficult with more elevation gain than we expected, but the coastal vistas were stunning.  Deep blue water and rolling white caps crashed into pristine white sand beaches and rocky granite outcrops.  A double guardrail protected us from the sheer cliff.  The hills were a “maquis”, a thicket of shrubs, oaks, junipers and cypress grew at a permanent 45 degree angle because of the prevailing wind.  As the sun dropped toward the water the smell of the sea mingled with the rich greens and herbs.

Margaret and Anne didn’t appreciate the wind even though it was at our backs…for them it was too heavy and made riding feel unsteady and a bit out of control.  I, on the other hand, thought I would not have made it up the hills but for the wind’s lift. As evening approached, there was worry. Had we taken a wrong turn?  The road and terrain became more desolate and the only hint of life were soaring hawks and falcons and an occasional sheep.  In exhausted silence we followed the steep cliff side road.  No markers or signs for the Hotel Baia delle Ginistre (Bay of the Broom) reassured us.  Then suddenly, after cresting one last hill we saw the hotel buildings and gardens stretching down to the Mediterranean.

A tall, gray haired woman, in gray slacks and sweater, wearing darkly tinted glasses, appeared to be waiting for us as we approached the hotel.  She showed us to three rooms overlooking the gardens and the sea. Although she spoke only Italian, she described the rooms, the keys and the gardens at great length.  Margaret translated important details.  The gray lady told us about breakfast, time and location.  Since it was almost 6 PM, we asked about dinner, where the hotel restaurant was and what time it opened.  The hotel website advertised, “At the resort you will find a self-service restaurant, a rooftop à la Carte, a piano bar and a poolside bar during the day in the square amphitheater.”  Evidently, that is only during the high season, which would begin in a week or so. Our guide shook her head vehemently and said, “No, no cena (dinner)!”

Taken aback we asked simultaneously, “Where’s the nearest restaurant?”  Then, “How far is it from here.”  We all understood when she answered, “oh…cinque-diecito chilometros” (5-10 KM).  Once again, our spirits fell.  The long day’s ride had depleted our supplies; we didn’t have any food, not even nuts or fruit.  Only Gary, who is diabetic, had few rolls he’d kept from breakfast and a candy bar in case his blood sugar was low. I felt particularly bad since I had booked the hotel…why hadn’t they said there was no food on the premises?  Perhaps we could buy some of the breakfast food for our dinner I thought desperately.

Our dismay was evident. There was no way that we could walk or ride our bicycles to the restaurant on the winding coastal road that we had just traveled.  We talked among ourselves and then the woman came over to us and said to Margaret “…un veicolo che uno degli uomini potrebbe guidare al villaggio”, that is “I could lend you a vehicle that one of the men could drive into the village”.  We practically fell to our knees thanking our new friend, saying, “si,certo, si, grazi, grazi!”  Relieved, we sat in the empty hotel restaurant, the gray lady served us beer and wine (except for Mike who was cleaning his wounds and re-dressing them) and discussed the day’s events as the golden red sun fell through the once threatening clouds into the sea.

Showered and somewhat revived, we left for dinner in our borrowed vehicle, a bright blue miniature Piaggio van with a puzzling advertisement on the side: “Figlie Del Silenzio” “Daughters of Silence”. Gary offered to be the designated driver (given the winding, unfamiliar roads) and we piled into the mini- station wagon, Anne folded into the very small rear compartment. Following the “gray lady’s directions we reached the only restaurant in the small fishing village, Trattoria da Gianni di Giovanni Loi, tucked into a bay with windows facing the water.

The only customers in the restaurant, we feasted on fried calamari, cuddle fish and black tagliatelle, grilled vegetables, pastas and wine. We watched the glimmering moon rise illuminating the black sea.  Anne raised her glass and toasted:

“…here’s to all the things that could have happened today but didn’t…Sue’s bike wasn’t permanently disabled, there were no cars going by when Mike skidded across the road, we didn’t go to bed hungry…and it didn’t rain!”

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