After the almost sterile order of Switzerland we embraced the life affirming air of chaos Italy brought. We forgave them for not resurfacing their roads sooner and almost forgave them the rubbish tipped care-free on the edge of the roads. It felt great to be in a country that seemed to have a bit of a twinkle in its eye again.
Our positivity stretched well into the second day. We picked out Lake Varese from the map and headed there: lakes and villages and hills, the visuals; a seemingly never-ending stream of tooting cars decked out in bows and ribbons for a wedding, the soundtrack.
But the transition from the superb French Michelin maps to the unreadable Italian one began to take its toll and for nearly the first time we found ourselves more regularly turning around and pedaling back to where we'd come from. We reached the lake in good time and good spirits and pressed along the shore to find a campsite or a nice spot for some wild camping. Campsites and lakes seem to have a symbiotic relationship in Italy - one not seeming able to survive without the other.
We discovered a nice cycle track skirting the lake and soon enough found an open field falling down to the shore with some trees to hide us from view. Perfect. We began to set up home for the night when Hannah went round the corner for a wee and discovered a house plastered in NO CAMPING - PRIVATE LAND signs - a common site in Italy we soon learnt. Not wanting to offend we reluctantly pushed on. Finding a spot to lay our heads had been easy and highly rewarding parts of our experience in France - enquiring about the possibility universally being met with smiles and suggestions and often gifts of food or wine. When we asked along this stretch the response was cold. But we did get pointed towards a campsite at the far side of the lake. It was 20km more than we would have wanted to travel but was a guaranteed place to rest our heads. As we got there and the light was fading, we witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets we've ever seen. The omens were still good.
We got to the village described and searched for the campsite to no avail. We stopped at a posh hotel for directions and they scratched their heads. Then they remembered a place back where we'd come from that had camping. We'd over shot by 10km. As it got dark and the rain fell we consoled ourselves that there was a bar and restaurant very close the spot we'd passed where a concert was just getting started and we could get pizza and a beer and forget the day. But we got back to the 'campsite' in the dark to discover it was a private site for static caravans - weekending workers from the city only. To top it all we realised that the concert was a fundraiser for the Northern League, the right wing party that propped up Berlusconi for years. Not what we wanted.
It was really dark now, storm clouds were closing in and we were desperate. We retraced our route a third time to a Catholic shrine just off the cycle path, and pitched up behind trees in the corner of the field. We climbed into bed with empty bellies - our first real fail in finding a spot to pitch up. The night was wet and slow. Hannah had trouble sleeping and woke me around 2am as our tent was light up by floodlights. Half asleep and confused i tried to figure out what was happening. I poked my head out of the tent. A car with a searchlight on the roof was parked up at the shrine, full beam pointing at us. Shit. Wild camping is illegal in Italy. Were we really going to have to get up and move on now?! The car - maybe the local police, the carabineri, or 'local volunteer force' - inched along the lane to the shrine, light fixed on our tent. They flashed it a few times - keen to stir us into action. I stuck my head out a little further, but if they wanted to come and speak to us they could get out and come over. The light hovered over our bikes beside the tent, turned back to my blinking face and went out. The car rolled off. I went back to sleep. Hannah slept fitfully, dreaming of the ancient ghostly guardians of the shrine chasing us from sacred land.
A couple of tired days on busy roads and map induced frustration followed. Days that started with serendipitous discoveries of woman-powered river boat crossings ended with country lanes lined with African sex workers. We were travelling through the Industrial triangle of Italy, the powerhouse of the economy that explains the Northern League's secessionist desires. They want to be able to stop paying for the needs of their poorer country men and women from the south. Perversely selling sex is legal in Italy but brothels are illegal, meaning many more sex workers are forced on to the streets. There are, we learnt, considerable links between the mafia and Nigerian organised crime syndicates. As early as 3pm in the afternoon we began passing young Nigerian women who more likely than not had been trafficked into the country, bound to repay un-repayable debts often having threats made about their own and their families safety if they renege, waiting near corn fields just off the main roads for punters. A sad and frustrating sight. Juxtaposed next to this desperation were housing estates with communal water fountains, chilled and infra-red activated taps with a choice of Natural, Extra Chilled, or Carbonated. Italy often gets its priorities right, but it also gets them depressingly, inexplicably wrong.
But then we found some peace in a field of German camper vans looking onto the reedbanks of Lake Garda. We were in Italy with days more than we needed to get to Venice for the boat and so took a day to lie by the pool of this little German campsite colony. We recharged and set off for Verona. The first 20kms took us past the entrances to Gardaland and other theme park attractions - a surreal sight - but then we tracked up into the hills and away from the lake. We saw olive groves for the first time and the landscape became punctuated by cypress trees. A chance request for direction from a wonderful chap in a petrol station led us onto a cycle path next to a roman canal that overlooked a stunning valley and eased its way right to the heart of the city.
We found ourselves in the most charming campsite in Italy, pitches stacked on top of each other, shaded by vines, overlooking the red tiles and clock towers of Verona. Watching the sun set over this beautiful town from the picnic tables here made it difficult to leave. We had the luxury of time and so took a few more days there. The pace had changed and whilst the slower speed gave us a welcome chance to recover we missed the sense of journeying which you get when you're up and on your bicycle every morning.
Two days more along rivers and over a hill steeper than anything in the Alps took us to Venice. An early morning stroll starting well away from the tourist heart of the city showed us Venice at its most charming. Washing being hung out over canals and fruit and veg being sold from boats. We passed a lively Communist party office. Debate and chatter fuelled by small glasses of white wine and cigarettes as Jesus and Che Guevara looked down from the walls. It was a relief to see some evidence of left wing politics after days spent passing Leagua Nord stickers on homes, shops and signposts. Murals on the walls urge the nation: "Wake Up Italy".
The tourist centre of Venice was beautiful but its charm was eroded by the tens of thousands of tourists pressing their way through the alleys and over the bridges. Waiters had a clear distain for customers and the €5 margherita pizza was replaced by the €13 version. As our ferry to Greece left the port we saw one of the mega-cruise ships that disembowel themselves into the city every day at the next dock. When you have tourism on that scale it is difficult to imagine a place not snapping under the strain. But that is perhaps the classic tourist complaint. You want to go somewhere of world renowned beauty without having to share it with the rest of the world. And that's been one of the things that's made this trip special. We've managed to find ourselves in places almost no-one does and it’s a privileged experience.
Our own Adriatic cruise was marred ever so slightly by ferocious rainstorms from start to finish. But we slept and wandered around and watched TV and read. Another day and a half of enforced relaxation, but at least we were still moving south.