– The adventures of a solo round the world cyclist –

Day 1003 (France Day 2)

I will no longer make it to Paris by cycling – that’s the conclusion I have slowly reached today. The reason is that I was unable to cycle today because of heavy snow, and I really did need every single day to make it in time. I was slightly disturbed by this realisation at the beginning, but now I don’t think I am seriously bothered by it. I am in France and I have got here on a bicycle from my home in Australia. To catch a train for a few hundred kilometres at the end does not detract from this achievement. The idea of catching a train and getting to Paris a couple of days earlier than planned brings some relief. If I was to cycle I would be under immense pressure to not only make it, but to get organised to leave in a hurry. And I would be at serious risk of running into problems if I couldn’t immediately find a bike box and arrange for some of my stuff to get sent back home.

I will still finish cycling across the Alps though and this will be a nice final success. Hopefully tomorrow I get going. It stopped snowing in the afternoon, having commenced last night. This morning I had gotten completely ready in my upstairs room, only to walk down and be stopped in my tracks by the incredible sight outside the front door. The entire porch of the hotel was under at least two foot of snow. A thick layer of the stuff covered every surface. Using Google Translate, I had a chat with the hotel owner and learned that the roads would be blocked and even cars wouldn’t really be going anywhere. I returned to my room, where I have spent much of the day. My body has really appreciated the rest. My mind has been super active working through my next steps. The idea of catching a train gives me butterflies in my stomach, because it seems to be bringing the end nearer. If I get a train from Lyon then I only have two or three cycling days left. One day (1,003 days ago in fact) I had my first pedal push to kick off this journey. Very soon I will have my last.

Going nowhere

Accommodation $ Hotel
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 29,366km
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Day 1002 (Italy Day 11 / France Day 1)

After staying up past 2am chatting with one of the loveliest girl I’ve ever met, I was worried my day would be ruined through tiredness, but it actually turned out to be relaxed and cruisy. This was largely because I didn’t make grand plans to push myself too hard, instead taking my time and giving myself plenty of rests. First I had a very pleasant downhill into Cesana Torinese. From there I faced a climb up to Montgenevre. On the way I passed from Italy into France. Frequent breaks meant that the climb didn’t seem too long and before I knew it I had reached the top. There, I treated myself to a burger and chips while watching people pass by donned in full ski gear on their way to and from the nearby ski slopes.

The next downhill provided even more spectacular views than the first as I descended into Briancon. I rode through the town and to a hotel I thought might be suitable but unfortunately it was full. Knowing my best chance to find a place to sleep would be Briancon, I returned to the town, stopping into a sports store where I bought a pair of ski gloves. I am wearing every single pair of my socks on my feet now, rather than having a spare pair to wear on my hands, and even with two pairs of gloves my hands are getting cold. My new third pair of gloves should get me through the rest of my time on the bike without suffering the pain of frozen fingers. The friendly guy who served me suggested I ask about accommodation at the tourist centre in town. A friendly girl at the centre called a hotel that probably offers the cheapest rooms in town and reserved one for me. I had an almighty final climb to get there, as it was up in the old town, far above the tourist centre. I was welcomed in by a friendly old man. I relaxed for a while before getting clean with a shower and heading into town for some food. Now it’s bedtime (an early one). Tomorrow I face a 30+km climb. The descent after this will take me out of the Alps.

Welcome to France

Accommodation $ Hotel
Distance ridden today 38.53km
Average cycling speed 12.7kph
Total distance ridden 29,366km
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Day 1001 (Italy Day 10)

Oh my, what a day! Today very nearly broke me. I actually wanted it to break me, because at least then the torture would stop. Somehow I’m still here. I got through it. Things were going well until I got stopped by the police and was told bicycles weren’t allowed on the main road I was on. This was fine, as there was a secondary road generally running parallel to the busy main road, but I was left with the impression that I would have to ride secondary roads all the way to Sestriere. In reality, the main road on which bicycles were not allowed only continued for a little while. I wasted some precious time chasing secondary roads much further than I needed to, and the chase led me into some incredibly steep climbs that sapped my energy, ones from which I had to backtrack when I hit dead-ends. Once back on the main road for good, I faced a mountain climb that never let up. The thing that made the day a monumental challenge was a headwind that was blowing down the valley. At times I could only manage 5kph and I now know what it feels like to have snow blasted into your eyes. I might need to consider getting goggles!

Another thing that made the day challenging was that I knew there were people waiting for me. The couple that were at dinner the night before last had police friends in Sestriere, and the police friends had said they would meet me just out of town and escort me in. The police said they would wait for me at Borgata from 3pm. As the day wore on I knew I wouldn’t make it there in time. I got a message out that I wouldn’t be there until 4.30pm. This turned out to be a bad estimation and at 5.40pm I was still making my way there. By this time it was dark. I didn’t have any way of contacting the police, so I messaged Marco to say where I was, which was about 3km from Borgata. I assume he got word to the police because a few minutes later an officer turned up to act as my escort. I apologised profusely about my slowness before proceeding to follow him at a snail’s pace.

It was probably a good thing I had someone to follow as it meant I pushed myself way harder than I otherwise would have. If I was on my own I would have succumbed to my utter exhaustion and probably pushed my bike with frequent breaks. Not wanting to hold the policeman up any more than I already had, I nearly cried as I pushed my body to its absolute limit. The gradient was difficult, as was the road surface, which was covered in ice. My wheels kept slipping and at one point my bike completely came out from under me. I hit the ground hard. I didn’t want to get up.

Miraculously, we reached our destination. In the course of the day I had gone from an elevation of 300m to an elevation of 2,035 metres. The air temperature was so cold that my water bottle froze solid halfway through the day, which meant I had no drinking water. But all of that was suddenly behind me. I felt a bit cool as I followed the flashing lights though town while the townspeople (here on their ski holiday) looked on. The destination was a ski resort. Sestriere hosted the Winter Olympics Games in 2006 and the Olympic Village that housed the athletes has been turned into a fancy resort. Incredibly, the police had booked me a room. The policeman escorting me into town simply led me to the front of the resort, told me they were expecting me inside, and then left. I must have looked a little crazy when I wheeled up to the main doors with my bicycle and limped my way in to the main desk. I told the girl that I think the police have booked a room for me. I sensed her disbelief, but she looked up my name nonetheless. I think we both got a shock when she said that yes, it looks as if the police have indeed booked a room. She proceeded to hand over some swipe cards and told me where I could it. I was amazed to discover that the room is a mini apartment. I was even more amazed to discover that the room included access to a sumptuous buffet dinner. What a great end to a difficult ride!

I feel too tired to go out, but I’m going to anyway. It turns out that the girl I met in Villafranca just so happens to be in Sestriere too. She had planned a ski trip here with her friends and had learned during the day (from our mutual friends in Villafranca) that I was headed there on the bike. It was just as I arrived at Olympic resort that I learned she was in town. I have just returned to my room from dinner to smash out this diary entry and tidy up my things in readiness for a ride tomorrow. When I’m done I will head out to join her and her friends at a bar.

Treated!

Accommodation Ski resort
Distance ridden today 87.42km
Average cycling speed 10.7kph
Total distance ridden 29,328km
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Day 1000 (Italy Day 9)

I have had a second day off the bike and although it puts me under extra pressure to get to Paris before my flight home, it has been well worth it. My body is now far more ready to deal with the mountain climbs that begin tomorrow as I head to Sestriere and into the Alps. It may even be just as efficient to lose a day gaining strength (and the ability to ride faster) than going ahead with a weaker (and therefore slower) body.

The other reason why having today off the bike was a good choice was that I had some great success in tracing my family history. In the morning Pino took me to Villafranca’s community office where the town’s historical records are kept. There, the lovely people behind the counter retrieved two humungous, old books. In these we found records from the life of my great-grandfather and his brother, including their births, marriages and emigration to Australia. It even recorded one of my great-grandfather’s return visits to Italy with two of his daughters. The most exciting thing is that I found out I may be eligible for Italian citizenship through my ancestry. Of course, this immediately set my mind off dreaming about going home, learning to speak Italian, becoming a citizen, and then moving to Italy to live for a while. I have always thought I’d love the experience of living in another country within a different culture, so maybe this is the way it will happen. I came away with officially stamped copies of my great-grandfather’s birth records and on my return home I intend to get straight onto investigating/achieving citizenship.

Of course, it has to be today, my last day in Villafranca, that I meet a beautiful Italian girl. When Pino and I came out of the community office, Pino spent some time chatting with some of his old friends, who, in a typical Italian scene, were catching up for a morning gossip. When I was introduced to them, one got excited. He knew someone nearby (his great-niece?) who could speak English. Before I knew it the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen came walking over from a nearby café. We had a nice chat and swapped details.

Back at home at Pino and Renata’s house we were joined by Marco (having a break from work) for a lunch that I could expect from an Italian restaurant at home: the main dish was spaghetti marinara, preceded by Italian sausage and fresh bread, and succeeded by a couple of salads, fruit and coffee. Would you believe I have started accepting coffee at every chance it’s offered. Here, it’s proper Italian coffee, which means espresso. At home I don’t drink coffee because I don’t like the taste, but I have learned that having a proper espresso is different, and quite nice. I also got to meet Marco’s brother Luca, who dropped by.

After an afternoon rest, Pino drove me around town for a look around and we stopped by the river Po, where there is a nativity display set out on the water and music playing. The entire surrounds are beautifully covered in snow. Unfortunately, just like the last couple of days, misty air was hiding the mighty Alps, which are very close by. Hopefully I will get some clear days so I can see them in all their glory. I have had the most wonderful time in Villafranca, but tomorrow it’s time to press on.

Home – Villafranca

Accommodation New friend’s house
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 29,240km
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Day 999 (Italy Day 8)

After a very pleasant sleep in and refreshing shower, I emerged into the kitchen to meet Pino and Renata, who had laid out a small breakfast for me. I brought out some muesli and milk  that I had and bumbled through some very broken conversation as a tea was made for me. Neither Pino or Renata speak English, and I can’t speak any useful Italian, so we were all a bit lost about how to interact. After a while I decided to get my phone and open up Google Translate. The first thing I did was type, “Are they discussing whether or not this man has performed a miracle?” The TV was on and I had cottoned on to the fact that the show was discussing the merits of someone who might be sainted. Renata got a small shock when she read my question and realised I had been able to follow what was going on. She got an even bigger shot when I used the speaking ability of the app to translate my spoken English into spoken Italian. We then had a conversation about the weather, whether I slept okay and our plans for the morning. It was slow going, because we each had to speak into the phone and have it translated into each other’s language, but it was fun and helpful.

After I finished breakfast, Pino drove me to the local cemetery and led me to the Toia section. It was right across from the Bertolotto section. And there were also a couple of Caffarati’s, who also feature in my family tree. When we returned home, Marco was there, ready to take me out. We enjoyed a full day touring the local area, particularly focusing on wine-growing areas of Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, which form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately the weather was very misty so we weren’t able to fully appreciate the views. We had a food stop in Alba, where I was treated to a Piemontese dish consisting of raw mince topped with sprouts. We drizzled olive oil on the top and enjoyed it with grissini (bread sticks particular to Piemonte) and wine. This was topped off with ice cream from the famous Gelateria La Romana. After lunch I learned more about the area with a tour of Barolo, including a visit to Casa E. di Mirafiore, a winery founded in the 1870s by a guy who became King of Italy.

Yet again dinner was worth the ride to Italy. Together with Marco’s family and parents, we were joined by another really fun couple. We worked our way through prosciutto, chicken/olive/antipasto coleslaw, pizza, quiche, lasagne, locally-made ice cream with Christmas cake, and limoncello liquor from Sorrento. I sat back and enjoyed listening to the stories being told animatedly. All day I’ve found it hard to keep a smile off my face: amazing people, amazing food, amazing part of Italy, a white Christmas (it hasn’t snowed this early here in ten years), a journey into my heritage…nothing but purely joyful experiences.

Hunting history

Accommodation New friend’s house
Distance ridden today 0km
Total distance ridden 29,240km
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Day 998 (Italy Day 7)

It’s Christmas Day! I woke up with no energy, but as I had organised a time to meet Marco (my Warmshowers host), I had no choice but to push myself through it. I accepted Marco’s offer of picking me up in the morning so that I could join him and his family for Christmas lunch. We had organised to meet up at 11am in Caramagna Piemonte. The only trouble was there was some serious climbing to be dealt with to get there. After one incredibly steep climb I felt like I’d reached the end of my tether, completely exhausted and stressed out about being late. In the end I reckon I was going to get to our meeting spot exactly on time. I was riding hard at 10.50am when a Nevara ute flashed me. It was Marco. He had got to the meeting point and decided to just drive on and find me on the road he knew I’d be on. We got my stuff into the back of his ute and drove to his house in Villafranca about 20km away. There, I met his wife Stefania and his two kids. We were soon joined by both sets of parents/grandparents. I got cleaned up with a shower, then began to relax, relishing my first time in an Italian house. This particular one was heavily decorated with pictures filling every wall space, beautiful furniture and fittings filling the floor space, and flowers and ornaments filling any other gaps. You could spend hours walking around taking in all the details. Despite being so full of details, it still felt very fresh, modern and comfortable.

Lunch was an extravaganza. The meal consisted of round after round of different meals, all delivered separately. It was difficult to gauge how much to eat, because I had no idea that more and more was coming. Of course, I didn’t knock back second helpings so I slowly got fuller and fuller, quite happily. Salmon with pomegranate, chicken coleslaw, prosciutto from Marco’s farm, turkey, lentil curry, baked pears…it went on and on. After lunch I joined Marco for a walk to his friend’s house where his friend’s family had just finished their Christmas lunch. Again, I really got to see just how well Italians look after their appearance. Everyone’s clothes and appearance were very fashionable. The best word to describe it might be ‘refined’.

In the afternoon I was treated to a special adventure. A few diary entries ago I mentioned that my great-grandfather was born in Italy and I was hoping to stay in the village where he lived…and that there just so happened to be a Warmshowers host in the same village. Well Marco is the host and Villafranca is the village! When Marco was driving me back to his house after picking me up, he casually said he had found the house where my great-grandfather used to live. This afternoon he drove me out there with his father Pino. It’s hard to know whether it was indeed my great-grandfather (whose surname is Toia) that lived there, but we could be certain that a family of Toias did indeed used to live there. The current owners of the property pulled out a framed certificate with a war medal that had been awarded to a Toia. I think they had found it when they moved in. They pointed out the dilapidated buildings that would have formed the house back in the time of my great-grandfather (i.e. the mid-1800s). Nowadays there are no Toias in the village and it’s possible my great-grandfather and his brother (who migrated to Australia together in 1899) were the last representatives of the family name in the area. To come and see and feel and breathe in the air from the place where they came from is very special.

In the evening we went hunting for people with the surname Bertolotto in a nearby village. I had a family tree with me and ‘Bertolotto’ had received the greatest interest, as my hosts knew there were people around with that name. We visited the house of one of Pino’s friends and although I didn’t learn more about my heritage, it was still a lovely experience to be welcomed into another home and spend some time enjoying the great company of more friendly Italians.

If I was at home and was served up the lunch I received today, there wouldn’t be any thought given to dinner. Not so here. Dinner was another extravagant feast. Again, all the work was done by Marco’s wife Stefania, and again it was all fit for royals. After dinner I found it hard to keep my eyes open, I was so tired. I collected some of my belongings and jumped into Marco’s parents’ car – it had been arranged that I would stay with them. At their house I was treated to one of the softest beds I have ever slept in. High on life after such as extraordinary day, I sunk into a deep sleep with a smile on my face. I feel very blessed to have met such wonderful people.

Where the Toias lived

Accommodation New friend’s house
Distance ridden today 45.09km
Average cycling speed 17.4kph
Total distance ridden 29,240km
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Day 997 (Italy Day 6)

I ended up on completely different roads from what I had mapped out for myself to get from Pavia to Asti, but the route I took was a nice one, so I am pleased for my navigational mistakes. The second half of the day was especially beautiful as I entered more hilly country characterised by seemingly unproductive farmland (cold season scenes of tilled soil and pruned vineyards) dotted with quaint villages sitting atop the higher points in the landscape. When looking north, the icy mountains of the Alps formed a stunning backdrop, as did the clear blue sky. It was the warmest day I have had in a while and I was even able to roll up the sleeves of my outer long-sleeve shirt and wear just one pair of gloves to keep my hands from getting cold. It was especially nice to take in a 360 degree view and see all the villages sitting on their hills. In each village is a church with a tall clock tower that provides a nice silhouette on the horizon.

I made it into Asti at 4.50pm, ten minutes before the time I told my accommodation I would arrive. I was let into the apartment that forms Luna Del Belvedere by Andrea and after five minutes I was left to my own devices. There seems to be several rooms with a shared bathroom, but given that I am the only person here, I basically have an apartment all to myself. After a soothing shower (having pushed my body so hard over the last week, my legs are super sore and feel very bruised), I have just finished eating a very mixed dinner made up by my own food supplies: tomato and cheese sandwich, can of chickpeas, can of sweet corn, can of mixed carrots/potato/peas, biscuits with hazelnut spread, lollies, kiwi fruit, orange, pear, and muesli bar. Now I am readying myself for bed.

Hilltop havens

Accommodation $ B&B
Distance ridden today 109.72km
Average cycling speed 17.3kph
Total distance ridden 29,195km
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Day 996 (Italy Day 5)

You know you’ve been going at it hard when 80km represents an easy day on the bike. And you know life is behaving normally when you plan for a quick, smooth ride, but then have to deal with a flat tyre. Despite this brief delay, I still had a fairly relaxing ride from Cremona to Pavia. The headwind seems to be increasing in strength very slightly each day though. It wasn’t terrible, but it was still annoying.

I started the day by opting to pay for a hotel breakfast. As I did my best to put a dent in the buffet offerings, I spied on the big group of youths who stayed the night. Some had instruments so I assume they are part of a music school program. I had to lie down for about fifteen minutes after breakfast to let the food settle a little before heading out. It was the warmest day I have had in a while – not warm by any means, but it wasn’t freezing cold. I got to the hostel in Pavia at 2.45pm, and with no response to the gate doorbell, I rang the number available on their website. I was told that someone would be there by 3.30pm. To fill the time, I rode to the nearest supermarket where I bought supplies to cover the next two days, which are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – given that I expect all shops to be closed. Outside the supermarket I was approached by some Italians (migrants from Africa) who asked what I was doing there with such a loaded bike. One gifted me with a couple of bracelets from the goods they are trying to sell. As well as selling belts and handbags and other items, they were earning money from returning people’s trolleys – it was the system where to release a trolley you insert a coin, which you can then retrieve when the trolley is returned, so by returning people’s trolleys for them they would earn the coin.

The hostel was open by the time I returned. I was quickly told that this is the last night the hostel is open before it closes for the holiday period. I’m the only tourist staying in a dorm room, so I basically have a private room and bathroom. The owner made a point that he was being very generous by not asking me for more money, given that I don’t need to share the room. ‘Why should I be penalised for your lack of customers?’ I thought in response.

I am still unsure what I am doing on Christmas night. I made a reservation for a place in Cavour, just in case things don’t work out with my prospective Warmshowers host. The host is being too nice without giving me an answer about whether or not I can stay with them on Christmas night. Instead of saying I can stay on Christmas Day, which is when I would arrive, he simply suggested I ride fast and join his family tomorrow for their Christmas Eve celebration. When I said it would be impossible for me to make the 200+km in one day, he offered to pick me up tomorrow so I can be there for Christmas. While this is an incredibly nice gesture, I explained that I really wanted to ride the whole way, if I could. Nevertheless, based on his generous offer, I am positive that it’s not going to be a problem if I stay on the 25th – it’s just that he hasn’t specifically said I could yet. I only had until midnight tonight to cancel my Christmas Day accommodation booking without penalty – I went ahead and cancelled it. I hope I get a positive answer from the host soon, otherwise I might find myself out in the cold for Christmas.

I bought enough food supplies that I have had dinner in tonight. All of a sudden it’s time to get ready for bed. I was hoping to have an afternoon of relaxation, but it never happened.

Pushing on

Accommodation $ Backpacker Hostel
Distance ridden today 80.08km
Average cycling speed 17.2kph
Total distance ridden 29,086km
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Day 995 (Italy Day 4)

I knew today would be long, and I knew it would be hard. But I also knew it would be possible. I managed it in the end of course, but it wasn’t without a mighty battle. I faced a slight headwind yesterday and it was present again today, a little stronger. I was able to stay on the same road all day without any major turns, so I didn’t have to muck around with navigation. I rode about 60km without stopping to reach Mantova, where I parked up in a main square to have lunch. I had to get up and move around a bit as I ate though, because it was so cold.

Much of the day was spent riding through a shroud of mist. The sun remained a faint glow, hidden behind a curtain of thick cloud that never lifted. As I got into Mantova, a guy riding past stopped for a chat. He has done some touring in Europe and in a couple of months’ time will ride home from Norway. A few minutes after chatting with him, he came rushing back on his bike. Out of breath, he asked me if I needed any help with anything. When he rode off the first time, he realised he had never asked this question and he felt bad, so he had busted his gut to catch me up so he could check.

The afternoon saw me racing the sun. I lost and it had just gotten dark when I got into Cremona. Fortunately, by this time there were enough cycle paths around that I didn’t have to worry much about riding with traffic in the dark. I reached the hostel at 5pm, the same time the reception opens according to the sign on the door. I waited for fifteen minutes, ringing the bell every now and then, before deciding to ring the contact numbers listed on the door. As I waited I began to shiver with the cold. Two numbers went to message bank and the third was picked up. I was promptly told the hostel is closed. I suggested they should put a sign on the door saying so! I jumped on my phone to check out alternative options and had to resort to a hotel. Luckily, the one I chose wasn’t far away, just twice as expensive as the hostel. The girl at the counter was super nice and storing my bicycle was no problem. I showered and chilled out for a bit before heading out for dinner. The only options I saw within an easy walking distance were pizza places, so yet again I had delicious pizza for dinner. Back at the hotel I ate some of my own food supplies before sitting in a tired daze in front of the TV. I was at that point of exhaustion where you can’t even be bothered going to bed, so I stayed up a little too long like a zombie.

Approaching Mantova

Accommodation $ Hotel
Distance ridden today 127.69km
Average cycling speed 17.9kph
Total distance ridden 29,006km
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Day 994 (Italy Day 3)

Although I’m sitting inside a fast food joint in Montagnana, my breath is coming out as steam. Even so, I am feeling warm for the first time in two days. Last night I failed to maintain warmth despite my layers: beanie, neck warmer, gloves, three merino wool long-sleeve tops, riding tights, legwarmers, shorts, thermal leggings, pants, and five pairs of socks. My feet ached with the cold all night and my upper body slowly froze as the night wore on. This was despite cocooning myself completely (head too) in my down sleeping bag and despite being in my tent within a closed shed. Nonetheless, I got through the night alive and left my hiding spot without any issues.

I donned socks over my two pairs of gloves to keep my hands warm as I rode my first leg of 50km. I faced two major navigational challenges today. The first was getting through the Venice/Mestre area and the second was getting through Padua. Like other days, I haven’t really seen very spectacular scenery, just typical farmland and relatively bland settlements. Of course, I am sure that if I had the time to stop, then each place would reveal itself as a fascinating home to wonderful people. I really began to tire after I got through Padua, even though I still had about 40km to go to reach my planned destination.

One thing about not planning/researching ahead too much is that it can feel incredibly delightful to stumble across unexpected surprises. Before my arrival, Montagnana was just a name on the map a convenient distance away. As I rode into the town and came across the old walled city, I realised I’d found a little slice of Italian magic. An ancient fortified wall surrounded a beautiful little village. The sun had just disappeared but the day still retained some light so I could see the twinkling of decorative Christmas lights against a faded blue sky. I stopped in the main square for a photo and had a couple of enthusiastic old men stop and ask me where I was from. I discovered the joy of being told ‘Well done!’ in Italian. I made my way through the fortified part of town and out the other side to my B&B. My first choice of B&B was all booked out. My second choice gave me a luxurious room. It’s far more than I want to spend of course, but after such as exhausting day even my mind couldn’t be bothered stressing over it.

Beautiful Montagnana

Accommodation $ B&B
Distance ridden today 118.23km
Average cycling speed 18.3kph
Total distance ridden 28,878km
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