Once again I tried to dance on the pedals, rising from my seat, desperately and unsuccessfully dodging the boulders that passed for a gravel surface, leaning forward over the handlebars to prevent the bicycle from rearing up like a frisky horse. Once again I was forced to stop and leap off the bike before it tumbled down the mountain slope. And once again I checked the map: it clearly indicated that this was a paved road over the mountains and back to my lodgings in Pistoia, a village between Florence and Pisa in Tuscany. Obviously, the map was an imaginative, utopian work, perhaps a plan for 2100. For this ‘paved’ road was a track that would defy even the most agile mountain goat.
So I heeded the sentiments of my mountain-loving comrades and regretfully turned back, resigned to the long way back to Pistoia. As I did so I recalled the words of a young woman in a shop:
‘Are you cycling around Italy on your own’, she said.
I nodded and smiled.
‘You’re mad’, she said.
I had come to Italy on my first serious trip to Europe, released from a prison of a relationship, relishing that age-old feeling of freedom. And I had planned to cycle through Italy, or, rather, through a steamy, burning Tuscany for a week or so.
The small town of Pistoia was my base, where I had arrived with a newly-acquired fold-up bicycle, a Dahon tourer that turned out to be a sheer joy to ride. Soon enough, I settled into the Brooks leather saddle as though I were settling into a comfortable armchair. But why Pistoia, whose only claim to fame was a contested religious relic? Why not Rome or Florence or Milan or Venice, one of Italy’s famous cities? It came down to a slender Italian woman, who was studying in Australia. Her family lived in Pistoia, her sister owned an apartment for guests, which would be available for me cheaply. Perfect, I thought: a small town in the country; I had time to myself to ride; she seemed more than friendly, dropping in every day.
But she remained friendly and no more – over wine and pizza and coffee, introducing me to her friends, guiding me through Florence, posing for some extraordinary photographs, talking endlessly. So I concentrated on exploring the town and riding the mountains. She turned out to be the only English speaker in Pistoia. Otherwise, I was on my own. When I bought bread and cheese and tomato at the twelfth-century piazza, I would hand over far too much only for the smiling farmer to hand most of it back to me. I desperately plundered the phrase book to find the words to buy smokes, to get a raggio (spoke) fixed, to ask directions when the map failed me. I explored the walls and towers, wondered at how so many people could be well-dressed, even from the farms and villages, and absorbed the party atmosphere from the music festival that descended upon the town in my last days there.
Above all, I rode. I rode into the Apennines, was overtaken by a svelte peloton as I sweated up the long haul to Vinci, where I visited the birthplace of Leonardo. I sped along the busy road back from the fortress of Lucca, hard by Pisa, dodging the mad Italian traffic. I pedalled to Prato and eventually Florence to catch a train for the next phase of my riding in the Netherlands. All the while, I repeatedly became lost, aided by that wonderful work of imagination, the road map.
In more detail: on my first day, I rode via a twisting road high into the upper reaches of the Apennines, by villages and ruins and evidence of wild boar. I bumped over the cobbled village streets of Villa Baggio, pushing up and up until the bitumen disappeared and ruins began to show. Scratchings of wild boar became so common that I began watching for tusked hulks thundering out of the undergrowth. On my way down I paused for a piss just above Baggio, only to be met by a toothless old woman who shouted Italian at me ever more loudly, hoping that sheer volume would crash through my incomprehension.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ She might have said.
‘How wonderful to be able to ride these mountain roads’, may have been her meaning.
Or: ‘Don’t piss on the side of the road, dickhead’.
Or perhaps: ‘Haven’t you heard of the Mafiosi, dimwit?’
Smiling sweetly, I took my time about remounting the bike and coasting down the mountain.
On another occasion, a long climb suddenly gave way to a quiet, winding, single lane road and a uniquely Tuscan experience. The narrow road was bordered by low stone walls, centuries old. Beyond the walls were terraced fields of vines and olives. And it was all bathed in that unique Tuscan sun – which also left me chronically dehydrated.
But it was here that I discovered the tiny village of Tizzana. Tizzana? Is there not a winery by that name north-west of Sydney on the Hawkesbury River? Yes, and it was built by a certain Dr Thomas Fiaschi, an Italian surgeon in the early European colony (see www.winery.tizzana.com.au/history.html). That Tizzana became a refuge for him and his new wife, a former nun with whom he had eloped. But why call it Tizzana? This surgeon hailed from the village of the same name, in Tuscany up in the mountains. And while he took a break from cutting people open in the new colony, he developed the winery he had built, constructing a stone home and winepress such as those in his old village, and introducing Italian wine-making techniques to the land down under. Our surgeon-vigneron was also responsible for Il Porcino, the bras boar in Macquarie Street, Sydney, outside the original hospital. Or rather, the citizens of Florence sent, after Fiaschi’s death, the boar as a gift, a copy of the one in Florence itself. It is said that stroking the boar’s polished nose is meant to bring good luck, along with a rich cluster of collected bacteria.
On another day I caught a local train to the fabled Lucca, walked the walls, wondered at the round piazza with its overlooking balconies and then decided to battle the traffic for the ride back to Pistoia. But on this ride – relatively flat and fast and ridden with that extreme-sport thrill of an unhelmeted tussle with Italian traffic – it was the women in uniform who took my imagination.
On the train, the conductor was anything but frumpy. A sleek uniform, a shirt partially unbuttoned, a blue cap perched on perfectly made hair; at each stop she would saunter out onto the platform on high-heeled boots and casually blow the whistle in a way that was all too suggestive. And in Lucca a police officer was directing traffic around a building site. Once again the uniform was a sleek affair, a gun was slung well over a well-defined thigh and signals were given to traffic in a way that said, ‘Don’t mess with me!’ Yet all the time she smiled and flirted with the builders, who thoroughly enjoyed the game while not realising that they were thoroughly wrapped around her little finger.
Too soon did I have to pack my panniers and say farewell to Pistoia. Slowly I did so and slowly I rode, eventually to Florence and a long-distance train ride north. On that ride I pondered again the curious bifurcated politics of Italy. Here the communists have always been strong; here the imprisoned Gramsci wrote some of the most influential works of communist theory; here Negri had taken up the mantle, now residing in Venice after two decades of exile in France. But here too Mussolini had come to power and linked arms with Hitler. And now Berlusconi was dominating Italian politics as I rode.
When I was at school I had read that Mussolini’s claim to fame was that he had drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains ran on time. A piece of hagiography, surely; a cute formulation from a witty historian. Curious, I asked people about the fascist past and present, about how Mussolini was remembered. The response I received again and again was, ‘Well, you know, at least he drained the Tuscan marshes and made the trains run on time!’
What about now? Do the trains run on time? Not at all. My train from Florence to Milan arrived two hours late, at the other end of an unannounced platform. Its air-conditioning was broken, the ratio of people to seats was about three-to-one, all of them deftly avoiding the train conductor as he moved about checking tickets.
So I now apply this foolproof test: if the trains run on time, then fascism has already arrived. If not, then one can relax. So it is with Italy.