Bike Odyssey
Europe 2004

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Journal for 13-September-2004 : Milan

Our Italian nightmare continued, as we attempted to call our travel agent in Australia. Phone cards are barred at this hotel.

We were so intimidated by Italian traffic that were preferred to sit and watch a terribly cheap looking episode of MacGyver dubbed into Italian.

Without maps, riding back to Milan was navigated by sight. This was not as easy as it sounds, as this region of Italy seems to be permanently coated in a high hazy mist. Sometimes it's possible to work out where the sun is, but not this morning.

We came across another new Freeway under construction, and a complicated series of flyovers, fly unders and roundabouts. The intersections have been re-built, and the roads have a wide smooth shoulder. They have even badged the shoulder as a bike path, but then went on to add a battleship's worth of steel to construct huge guard rails providing physical separation between the bike path and the road. And the bike path section of the road is now completely overgrown with weeds, which the new guard rails make it physically impossible to be mown. So the Italians spent a lot of money building a new safe, wide road. They then spent a lot of extra money making the road narrow again, and ensured the wide bit can't be used by anyone. Oh, and at the end of each of these works the bike “paths” abruptly ended with a “no bikes allowed” sign.

We found a windy narrow road into the outskirts of Milan, more by chance than anything. “We'll go left here” I announced. “Why?” Linda asks. “Because we went right at the last intersection”. When I say this road was narrow, think between 2.5 and 2.0 metres wide, ie less than a lane on an Australian road. It strategically wound it's way around every obstacle that might obstruct the view of oncoming traffic, in what was otherwise open corn fields. Where no natural blind spots existed, new trees had been planted to fill the void. And on the rare spots there was no drainage gully or hedge row allowing cars traveling in opposite directions to pass, new light posts had been installed, then painted with warning bands.

Amid the endless high rise on the outskirts of Milan we found a public phone, and called our ticket issuer Air New Zealand's UK office. We were initially given the Italian phone number, which went nowhere (so if any Air New Zealand execs are reading this wondering why they don't get many visitors from Italy, maybe that's why!). Recalled their UK office and got a completely different story from Air NZ in NZ. They suggested we try another airline!

We cycled a seemingly impossible route from our “conveniently located” Hotel to Milan railway station. But it was only 15ks this time. After a struggle with the very reluctant tourist info board (bored more like) I got the contact details for Singapore Airlines.

We dumped the bikes at a relatively cheap but still way over our budget hotel. After only an hours searching we found the Singapore Airlines offices. The people there could not have been more helpful, and what I feared might have taken three weeks through Air NZ was done within half an hour. Now it must be said Singapore Airline's Milan office is very quiet, probably because Singapore Airlines doesn't even fly here! The only work they need to do is re-print tickets for frustrated Aussies like us, or the frustrated Aussies ahead of us who had lost their tickets.

With a new itinerary booked that did not involve any more cycling in Italy I felt a great weight of uncertainty lift off my shoulders. A ray of sunshine burst through Milan's perpetual haze, brilliantly illuminating an enormous gothic cathedral I had previously not noticed (or maybe it was hidden up in the smog layer).

I know this is going to sound a bit odd, but we are now planning to cycle back to Paris and fly home directly from there. Perhaps with patience, persistence and a great deal of good fortune we could learn how and where to cycle safely in Italy, as well as overcome the seemingly endless cultural obstacles (like lack of campgrounds, lack of cheap hotels, and lack of any way of finding them if they did exist). But as the longer this trip has gone on the less tolerant, patient and persistent I've become. Even getting a train over the bit we don't want to ride is fraught with the possibility (probability given what we've seen) that our bikes and our bodies might arrive at different destinations at different times. And at the end of that, in all likelihood we'll have the same problems learning to cope with Greece and then Thailand, even without worrying about the terrorist insurgencies. Any chances of the “don't go there” travel advisories being lifted were blown up with the Australian Embassy in Jakarta a few days ago. To put it bluntly, the cultural differences and overcoming the challenges these bring is one of the joys of traveling. But after more than a year of cycling we're so jaded we're no longer enjoying them. In fact, it was a minor achievement to convince Linda to do a bit more cycling in France rather than end this trip on a really sour note.

So, with newly re-issued tickets in hand, we are watching Italian TV tonight which is screening the terrible 80's Australian soapie “A Country Practice” (staring someone Linda went to school with), dubbed into Italian of course!

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