‘Andrà tutto bene’
Gisborne’s Hans van Kregten writes of his 2000km cycling trip last year from his native Netherlands to Rome, and makes a plea on behalf of Covid-19-ravaged Italy for travellers to visit again . . . one day.
You can plan all the travels you like — but the reality is always different. That was once the beauty of travelling. Today it is just sobering.
Last year, I succeeded in reaching Rome from the Netherlands on a bike but forewent the ride across the Austrian and Italian Alps because of the weather conditions.
This year, planning for international travel is just not possible.
Bicycling 2000 kilometres from my native country, the Netherlands to Rome over three to four weeks is a thing Dutch people seem to do in large numbers. There are plenty of books to help. I used a detailed route description written by a meticulous Dutch town planner that fitted neatly in the handlebar bag, but the page needed to be turned at every ten kilometres.
Yes it's probably time to splash out on a GPS tracker tool next time.
The route took in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, before travelling half the length of Italy. Highway avoidance was the writer's battle cry. What seemed like illogical detours on the maps proved very effective in securing safe and scenic routes through four different countries.
But my preparation here in Gisborne had concerned itself most with how to cross the Alps and whether the epic Giro d 'Italia climb of the Stelvio pass could be included as a detour. With 1500 climbing metres rising to 2700 metres above sea level and with 48 hairpin bends, that was a much more serious challenge than a Gisborne Cycle Club Saturday ride up Gentle Annie (360 metres) but I felt I was up to it. Pity that rain and sleet in the Alps and snow on the Stelvio — set that plan aside.
There was always 2020. Or, so I thought.
But now, planning travel to Italy seems inappropriate. The country is ravaged by Covid-19 and the Italians are mourning the deaths of tens of thousands. Fear is still widespread. My Dutch cousin's Italian wife is desperate.
“My ageing parents back home are too scared to leave home. There is death everywhere.”
Meanwhile, Dutch politicians' names in Italy are mud.
The Netherlands and Germany have been slow to approve European Union emergency financial assistance to Italy over the need for Italian governmental financial prudence. The Dutch have been characteristically blunt over this, causing the French to raise alarm over the future of the Union if there is no European solidarity.
So, will the Italians still welcome a biker from Holland?
It might be a better idea to rely on my New Zealand links. These can open doors. Like last year, when I ordered a kebab meal in a simple takeaway in Ferrara, a chat with the young restaurant owner from Bangladesh led to a broad smile from him. It was two months after the Christchurch mosque attack when he said to his little children:
“This man is from New Zealand. Oh, we love their Prime Minister Jacinda.”
The Italian tourism sector is worth 60 billion euros per year, good for one-eighth of the nation's GDP. Staying away is not going to help Italians recover, or help the Bangladeshi restaurateur to pay for his kids' education. Yes, there is moral justification for another bike ride, because the Italian tourism sector is broken and needs customers. And yes, there is hope in Italy too.
Banners are springing up across the country stating “Andrà tutto bene” (Everything will be all right). Tourists will have a role in making this prediction come true.
Exactly 12 months ago I set off. Cycling through the Netherlands and Germany was easy. There were nice purpose-built cycle tracks and country roads, familiar surroundings, and the ability to speak Dutch and German enabled easy contact with locals. Language ability was also rewarding in enabling the mental links of landscapes with culture and history.
The 100 kilometres along the Rhine was a highlight, with medieval towns, plentiful castles and beautiful vineyards. Look deeper, and there are sudden haunting memorials about the extermination of Jews and the destruction of their synagogues, or plaques with names of people carried out and away from railway stations to extermination camps — chilling experiences on warm spring days. You can never escape history in Germany.
I had companionship in the first week from my old Dutch university friend Sybolt. Decades of living on different sides of the world instantly evaporated. Such contacts rejuvenate because we tended to talk a lot about what happened way back in our 20s.
At the bottom of Bavaria, the call was made to travel across the Alps to Verona in a Flixbus, bike hanging off a rear rack. It felt like a defeat, but from Verona cycling all the way to Rome was wonderful. No cycle tracks there, but most country roads were great to bike on, with ubiquitous small villages welcoming tourists with great coffees, cakes and beers at night.
The biggest pity was that my Italian was too basic for any other than superficial contact. So much of the history and culture is missed.
Luckily, some language is universal. I loved watching the dedicated bike mechanic near Bologna replace a rear tyre and throw in lovingly-applied free lubrication of chain and cassettes. All the time, pictures of the great Giro and Tour de France rider Marco Pantani looked down on us from the workshop walls.
“Oh, Il Elefantino, he was just the best,” the repair man said, looking at the images of the iconic Italian cyclist with elephant ears, who sadly committed suicide in 2004.
I stopped off in tourist centres like Florence and Siena, that crawled with visitors. But trying to avoid crowds, I snuck away into the old-fashioned Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze (Florence Natural History Museum) where there were almost no visitors.
It provided unexpected recognition. There was a small exhibition about James Cook, and lots of Aotearoa taonga, including a small carving from Tolaga Bay.
A few days later I passed a giant Moai built by pilgrims from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the small village of Vitorchiano. Another powerful connection between the historic civilisations of Polynesia and Italy.
That was a welcome taste of my South Pacific home — just before riding into the sensationally-beautiful city of Rome.