WARM days, cool nights and the relaxing blue hues of Chefchouen made it tough to finally jump back on the bikes for what was to be our last few days in Morocco.
After two months of tackling mountains, desserts and a life time’s supply of bread and laughing cow cheese (my stomach will never be the same) we were desperate to set sail for Italy but with the lush green mountains of the Rif stretching out between the blue city and the coast it seemed we were in for a final scenic treat.
What we failed to release was top views come at a painful price.
The fit Frenchman Franck was again joining us for the final three days and he set a cracking pace into a cracking headwind that stayed with us all the way to the Gibraltar Strait. Within hours my legs were screaming for mercy as the road swung steeply into the mountains up indecent gradients that caused the biggest bout of cyclist’s Tourettes I’d suffered in weeks. Suddenly the end of Morocco couldn’t come soon enough!
We reached the bland, coastal, Mediterranean town Oued Laou at 5pm, having peddled just 50km, and after picking up supplies we steadily climbed the first of what was to be many switchbacks out of town. Finding a campsite was tough with the steep road hugging the cliff so we figured it was time to be creative. Franck eventually found a goat track that ran to a vacant headland and we quickly set up our tents with a jaw dropping view of the ocean.
After a restless sleep (thanks to a pack of prowling dogs) we woke up to gale force winds that battered us head on up endless steep switchbacks. The aim was to reach Tetouan (just 50km away) and pick up supplies before finding another wild camp spot but a few kilometres out dark rain clouds swelled and by the time our screaming legs had pushed through the headwind into town we were wet and miserable. The decision was unanimous: find a cheap hotel, curl up under blankets and maybe even watch a movie. The problem was modest Tetouan didn’t seem big on the accommodation front so after cycling around in circles we stopped at a fruit stall to ask a local where a cheap hotel was. He soaked in our sorry, wet and disheveled appearances and immediately ran after us to offer up his house for free. The young and well dressed Moroccan, who introduced himself as Ibrahim, led us just a few hundred metres through the rain to his empty apartment (his family lived in another house) and gave us free reign until later on when he was to return for dinner. At 8pm he turned up with another well dressed friend who drove us to a coastal cafe where they treated us to delicious kebabs and the local drink – a kind of sugar cane milk.
They wouldn’t take a dime, insisting it was their pleasure and duty to help out those in need (we must have looked pretty bloody miserable when they first saw us) and it bowled us over.
The last 50km until Tanger’s port were no less tough and when we finally reached the bright and sunny Gibraltar coast we decided to spend our last night in relative comfort in a hotel. By Moroccan standards it was a splurge – 10 euros each for a self contained apartment – but with views overlooking the ocean and dinner on the balcony at sunset it was money well spent.
The next day we said our final farewell to Franck and headed for the port. In an attempt to save money we stocked up food for three days (the ferry would go via Barcelona to Livorno and take over 50 hours) and then settled in for the long wait. We had a few hours to kill before the boat kicked off but lucky for us we had front row seats to Morocco’s own Border Control reality show. It seemed southern African migrants were constantly attempting to climb the steep walls into the port and after 10 minutes of sneaking around they were promptly found out by some of the many guards and chased fruitlessly around the compound. They would then volley themselves back over the fence, wait until the coast cleared, and repeat the process. I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel shocked but either way I was baffled. What were they hoping to achieve? We went through five passport and ticket checks just to get on the ferry!
For the next three days and two nights we wandered about the ship and caught up on our reading and at 9pm on the 30th we pulled into Livorno.
With scarcely a glance at our passports we swung past the border guards and peddled into the city, passing the telltale signs of a typical port city: cheap cafes, neon lights and big shipping containers.
Despite that, Livorno had a laid back charm that we sunk our teeth into the next day. We also sunk our teeth into pizza and delicious table red wine that tasted like the elixir of the gods after two months of abstinence (well mostly anyway) in Morocco.
From Livorno the famous town of Pisa was just a short 30km ride and the following morning we tackled the busy (and slightly terrifying) roads north east to see one of Italy’s big three – the leaning tower. After just a few kilometres (and one very close miss with a driver who’d confused a back country road with a formula one racing track) we were ready to call it: Italy took the Craziest Drivers crown. We arrived in one jittery piece and immediately fought the crowds to see the big attraction.
Having both seen photos and footage we knew what to expect but somehow seeing the Leaning Tower in the flesh was mind blowing. The buildings around it were no less impressive and I was already quick to forgive Italy it’s insane drivers for its exquisite history.
Prior to setting sail to the “beautiful country” we’d read all about the nation’s still gripping financial crisis and had quietly wondered what kind of effect this would have had on tourism and prices. After two days in the country it seemed the answer was bugger all.
Italians themselves made up a huge number of tourists squeezing in for selfy pic room at the tower and after checking out the nearby hostels we discovered the accommodation industry wasn’t suffering a bit. We paid prices reminiscent of London for a basic dorm room and wondered just how well our budget would hold up in this unexpectedly expensive country.
From Pisa we struck east again for Florence (the biggest city in Tuscany) and while the drivers were still manic the scenery was breathtaking. Spring had turned the landscape into vibrant green rolling hills with splashes of red and yellow flowers and for the first time in two months I was breathing in as deep in possible, wishing I had four sets of lungs to capture the lingering smell of jasmine.
Country roads offered a reprieve from the traffic and a close up view of magical Tuscany while the towns where painted in that quintessential Tuscan style of honey-hued homes and backyard vineyards.
We pushed out the 80km to Florence, arriving just on sunset, and wheeled our bikes into one of the cheapest hostels available – a former nunnery.
In almost 11 months of travel there’s been just a few moments when a town or city has truly taken our breath away. With its elegant bridges, renaissance buildings and blend of history and style Florence did just that in the first few minutes.
I was ready to sell my bike and find a job – any job – somewhere in this magnificent city just so I could spend my days living in a leafy terrace apartment and sipping espressos at funky cafes like a true Florentine but instead we resigned ourselves to just three days of sight seeing and food tasting before heading south.
We walked the semi enclosed medieval bridge Ponte Vecchio, we soaked in the remarkable facades in the Piazza Del Duomo and strolled the pungent streets of the city’s biggest fresh food market.
We squeezed ourselves into raucous restaurants next to food obsessed Florentines and threw ourselves into the transcendent experience that is gellati.
It was painfully clear that three weeks was a laughably short time to spend in such a diverse country but thanks to our nearly expired visa we had just six weeks to squeeze in Italy and Greece.
Our Italian love affair turned into something bordering on feverish passion as we left Florence and peddled south through the rich and varied Tuscan wine country to Siena. If it wasn’t for the hills (of which there were many) it would of felt as though I was floating through some kind of ridiculously romantic fairy tale made up of impossibly green woods, blooming gardens, stone villas and magical villages.
We took winding roads through Impruneta, Greve in Chianti and finally to Siena – a slightly more gothic city than its northern rival of Florence.
With the clock ticking and a the chance to meet our Portuguese friend Paula in Rome we cut our Tuscan time down further and jumped on a train to the country’s capital city. The shortcut would give us time to get to Naples and then across to Brindisi where we would catch a ferry to Greece but we were still devastated to be missing so much.
Four hours later the train dumped us in the city centre on a Friday afternoon and so began one of the most terrifying cycles of our trip.
We were headed for Rome’s only feasible accommodation option – a camping ground – but to get there we were forced to peddle through 10km of insane peak hour traffic.
It was sheer insanity tempered only by the fact we got to peddle past the Colosseum and when we finally arrived it was tough to do little more than eat some pasta and curl up in the tent.
There’s an old saying that “one lifetime is not enough to see Rome” and once we’d escaped the sleazy and dirty outer suburbs we began to understand the expression. Centuries and centuries of history sits on every street corner and a stroll down an inner city street is like watching a timeline unfold.
From the ruins of the Roman Forum to the gleaming Armani stores its hard not to be moved by one of the most incredible cities in the world and we decided to dive straight into it with a trip to the Colosseum.
While the building itself has been raped and pillaged for its finer materials (such as marble) over the centuries its still largely intact and for two hours we climbed its steep steeps, peered into the underground mine of chambers used to house the animals and gladiators and even glimpsed the carved names of ancient senators.
We were nothing short of blown away and while we walked out with a strong desire to watch Gladiator we instead wandered through the Roman Forum (where lies the ashes of Julius Caesar) and continued on to the Pantheon and then to see our friend Paula.
A friend of hers, Roman born Fabio who worked at Armani, had agreed to take us around and show us the sites and while the sites were fabulous the most impressive part was Fabio. He, like his friends, was incredibly proud and passionate about his city and when we wound up the tour with a beer in his local bar the result was a rare insight into the lives of locals.
For many, it seems gellati is preferred over beer, food is the essence of life and friends make up the rest. The men were openly affectionate with each other and they all laughed loud and long.
It wasn’t until the early hours of the morning that we sadly farewelled Paula (who had bought us a care package from Portugal) and stumbled back to the campsite full of a deep love for Rome and its people that even the disturbing number of street walkers couldn’t stem.
For the next two days we soaked up the Vatican, Piazza Navona and imagined life in Rome – both 2000 years ago and today.
I was sad to leave but excited about what lay ahead – a quick cycle to Naples and a few days of pizza eating – and thrilled I’d nevertheless gotten a flavour of one of this magnificent country.