Week Ten: Exchanging two wheels for two feet - Our Mid-Trip Backpackers’ Whirlwind
Venice to Venice (via Malaga, Rome and Naples by train, plane, bus, tram, taxi, Uber, Venice canal airport water taxi, and 29km on foot)
In 1999, freshly finished the final thesis paper of his undergraduate degree, Ed stuffed a hastily-purchased hiker’s pack with unnecessary “essentials” and took off with a troupe of friends to “do” Europe.
Over 20 days, he bounced to 11 cities in seven countries - navigating to all the must-see sights by paper map, sampling exotic street food like deep-fried Czech cheese, drinking beer in public squares, sleeping on trains and not-so-much in hostels, and reflecting out loud about the meaning of it all. By the flight home, the cheap pack (stuffed even fuller with unnecessary souvenirs) was falling apart, and Ed’s back, legs, feet and psyche were exhausted.
It was awesome.
But Ed isn’t 23 any more.
Even at 33, with baby Heron on Joce’s back trekking across France, Spain and Italy, Ed ably lugged a 57-pound (much better-quality) pack stuffed with four months of “essentials” for a young family of three. No problem.
But now Ed’s somewhere in the vicinity of 43. So now we have bikes: all that weight is shifted off the shoulders onto the pannier racks (and thanks to Joce the discerning packer, now it’s truly only the essentials). We pedal freely from town to town, experiencing Europe one kilometre at a time, breathing the fresh country air, unrestricted by the timetables of trains and buses. We sleep peacefully under the stars in our tent - a cacophony of birdsong rousing us instead of late-night drunken revellers.
It is awesome.
Yes, indeed, this week we’d come to the final gauntlet in our saga of Spanish visa requirements. You can catch the earlier episodes of our nerve-fraying quest in the blogs from Weeks One and Four - but for now, let’s say that we’ve earned our temporary residency extension that allows us to stay in Europe beyond the oddly restrictive three-month limit.
Or have we?
In order to know for sure, we had to return (again) to the Comisaria provincial de policia nacional in Malaga where we began our pan-European bike tour - ten weeks and 4,554km ago - to pick up our Foreigner Identity Cards granting us a full year of access to Europe.
Since we were in northern Italy, we had to fly. Since we were flying, we might as well take that detour to Rome and Naples that the boys were so eager to see.
So now we had a four-day itinerary bouncing about Europe - and since it would be too much to lug our bikes along with us, we were going backpacking.
But we didn’t have backpacks - only the hydration packs we carry on day hikes. This was just as well, since the discount flights we’d booked charge big Euros for checked luggage. We would just have to fit four days of “essentials” into a glorified pocket.
Boy, did we miss our bikes.
The toughest part was the dominos: that series of planes, trains and buses that we had to catch at each stage, in order to catch the next step in the series. On our bikes, we could pedal at our pace and arrive when we got there. But our discount flights (especially the one that cost - we shit you not - 1.95 Euros per person before taxes, total 39 Euros for all four of us) were likely to leave us on the tarmac if we weren’t an unspecified amount of early.
We were sure there had to be a catch.
“Oh, you wanted to actually get on the flight?” Heron jokingly predicted the ticket-taker’s greeting. “That’ll be a hundred Euros, please.”
“Oh, you wanted to be allowed to get off the plane when we land?” ventured Sitka. “Two hundred Euros!”
We had nightmares of being flown to Rome, Alabama and told to find our own way back to Italy.
Or worse: missing a domino and giving the Spanish bureaucracy a reason to deny us our hard-won visa extension.
Alas, our stress-induced adrenaline rush lasted the full four days, and we not only toppled every domino from Verona to Venice to Malaga to Rome to Naples to Venice - we had a right rip along the way.
In Venice, we trusted our bikes and 95 per cent of our Earthly belongings to Mauro the mechanic for a four-day tune-up, then visited the city of canals that stunningly exceeded its lofty hype. This marvel of history and engineering and culture and resilience had us enthralled with its as-advertised uniqueness - right up until we had our own racing-through-Venice moment when we couldn’t find our water-taxi stop mere minutes before it was supposed to whisk us to the airport for Domino Number One. We peered down alleys and backtracked like rats in a lab maze until a chilled-out dude leaning against a medieval cathedral smoking a cigarette pointed us the right way. Full-tilt we ran down a narrow channel to the main canal, leaping onto the boat that had already left the gate, Heron dragging along in the water to his armpits while we hoisted him aboard.
Okay, so we made it just as the boat was pulling up to the dock. But it still felt like we were chasing a jewel thief or fleeing a Bond villain, dashing frantically through the famous Venice streetscape with all its twists and turns. And the satisfaction as we calmly floated beneath the Rialto Bridge, our mission complete, was the full-on Venice experience.
Next day, we woke up in our hotel in Malaga (with two alarms this time), biting our nails in anticipation of our Cita previa appointment at the provincial police station where our residency cards supposedly awaited. We followed the same protocols as our previous visits - but this time, the Supervisor of No was nowhere in sight. The kind woman who efficiently took our passports and paperwork (but not, as promised, our long-form birth certificates proving our biological kinship to our children), then handed us our drivers-license-sized Spanish IDs, was perplexed as to why we kept asking if this was FOR SURE the final step.
“So, after today, we don’t have to come back? No mas?” Joce insisted the fourth time.
“No. No mas. Is good.”
We practically ran out of the station before one of her colleagues could arrive to correct her. Then we celebrated with a beautiful walk along the same Mediterranean beach we had pedaled ten weeks before.
Next day, we woke up in our campground cabin in Rome and soon were glad to have not brought our bikes. The cycle trails in northern Italy are well separated from car traffic, so we had not yet noticed the Italian way of driving. As our Uber chauffeur shuttled us at the speed of sound through rush-hour traffic toward St. Peter’s Square, swerving between lanes and at one point darting in the middle of two lanes, almost wedging the car between two huge tour buses, we noticed the horn-honking frenzy of Italian roads.
“It’s really aggressive,” beamed our buddy from back home whose family met up with us near Trevi Fountain. He inexplicably enjoys borrowing his father-in-law’s car and diving into the crazy fray. “You just have to go for it.”
We were much happier on foot through the ancient alleyways between St. Peter’s - Sitka’s favourite - and the Colosseum - Heron’s favourite - with Ed in his full-on element recounting all the fascinating historical details of the Parthenon, the Roman Forum and everything in between. We caught a glimpse of the perils of family backpacking when Ed paused a particularly hilarious anecdote about gladiators and found no familiar faces around him. Twenty minutes later, we miraculously found each other among the throngs of Colosseum visitors in the, well, colossal arena. And we made a better plan to stay together when not pedaling one behind the other on quiet country roads.
That night, we were in the birthplace of pizza, devouring wood-fired Napoletanas and Margheritas in a back-alley restaurant, marveling in the scrumptious simplicity of fewer toppings. Our Naples stop was predicated on our family’s collective love of this particular foodstuff, so we shared several ‘zas again on the way to the airport the next evening. It’s possible we may never put veggies on our pies again.
In between, we took a sardine-tin train out to Pompeii for more mesmerizing history (how we avoided contracting Covid over these four days, we will be forever stumped), giving Sitka even more firsthand visual to enhance his Grade 7 social studies class come September. He has so eagerly absorbed the stories from these places that he could likely shove Ed aside and teach the course himself.
At long last, we arrived at the gate to our 1.95-Euro flight and boarded without any extra costs or complications other than the President of Algeria causing a one-hour airport shutdown. Our tiny backpacks of essentials did the job (the boys even had space for a little souvenir), and we stumbled upon an open-air food festival in Venice on our walk that night. Mauro the mechanic had our bikes in stunningly better-than-new condition (even shiny clean, too).
We’d backpacked in our 40s, with our two keen and resilient boys venturing by our side. Our feet were sore, our minds were full, and we were exhausted.
It was awesome.