We step on the pedals of our bikes beating our way across the Oberjoch towards the south side of the Alps. I need to get used to my one-wheel trailer. The load on the back creates quite an lot of vibration on the way down by pulling on the back of my cross bicycle. Even on the first day, Tobi’s heavily loaded trekking bike rattles like a scrap metal container. Can this work out?
The alpine mountain pass turns out to be a sporty challenge. An endurance test for man and material. After two bivouac nights in Tyrol’s cold deep valleys, we reach the Reschenpass almost on our last legs. Italy, the holy country, where we cycle downhill, has to wait. Our damage report: one mudguard demolished by a wheel, a bent rear derailleur gear, a loose bicycle rack strut due to a broken screw, a loose handlebar stem and two grinding brakes. Never mind, peanuts. In the south, the Ortler Alps smile at us with their glaciers, and peddling along the lakeside of the Reschensee is almost meditative with the seducing little ripples and waves.
Cycling next to the river along a car-free cycle path in Etschtal in Trentino, our legs are slowly getting used to peddling with the heavy load. Vines covered with frost offer a first taste of the south. Lagrein Dunkel and Gewurztraminer are the local winemakers' flagship grape varieties. The light Edelvernatsch wine warms the muscles and greases the joints. It soon becomes proper Italy: The Alps open up and the sun in Lombardei gets the birds singing for the first time on our tour. The city of Mantua personifies the clichés of the good old world in the best way: la storia, la cultura! At Piazza Sordello, a man called Rossini feels immediately responsible for our well-being. He takes us on a tour of the city on his bike. He cycles one-handed and gesticulates with the other one like a policeman so the traffic keeps its distance: “Aspetta!”, he cries, or: “Attenzione!”. A subtle “Permesso?” also comes out of his mouth in Centro Storico. Rossini seems to know the whole of Mantua. He finally asks for a cheap room for tired cyclists when we arrive at his friends Giovanni and Dina. Dina, a locally born Signora, provides us with historical insights on the importance of Palazzo Ducale, the “ducal palace”, whose arcades we had just thundered through.
All back roads also lead to Rome
Emilia shows its dull side. And the plains of the River Po are already in a foggy winter sleep. We cycle in the darkness for many hours to reach the sunny high plateau. Towards Zocca, high up in Apennin, our daily cycling rhythm takes us along a cart path and into the icy mountain night. A foehn down-slope wind has piled up clouds in the southwest of the mountain range which shimmer in the moonlight. We cannot find a camp ground in the dense, night primeval forest. When we reach a road, we lay down on the tarmac to rest. But our bodies do not calm down after the exhausting mountain sections. Our circulating systems are working non stop, our pulses fail to slow. An owl tries to lull us to sleep but we can only snooze for a couple of hours. When we crawl outside our sleeping bags in the coldest hour, push-ups are all we can do.
Rome. 300 kilometres through picturesque Tuscany lay behind us when we reach the haze of the Italian capital with tailwinds. Our bicycles turn out to be the number one urban means of transportation inside the open-air museum of three million people. Mighty leftovers of a former empire tower above us as we speed along. Between all this there is the hustle and bustle of young Romans enjoying the nightlife in scenic bars and mostly, they are elegantly dressed in black. Zest for life instead of frustration about rules! A friend's recommendation counts a lot, one hand washes the other. But the ancient region of Latium in the west of Italy can also turn its back on the traveller. Malicious gossip has it that they have had enough of all the tourists!
We reach the coast at the Tyrrhenian Sea at the perfect time for a blood-red sunset. A Gastarbeiter is raving about his home city to which he has returned. He is a bricklayer and speaks German with almost no accent: “Napoli is beautiful”, he reminisces, “but you need to watch out!” He pauses for a second as if he said something wrong about his beloved city, then he backtracks: “Oh no, forget that, Napoli is beautiful!”
Mare e monte, also on a plate
Napoli lies at the foot of Mount Vesuvius – the destination for our first “volcanic” flight. The cobblestone street beneath the wheels is murderous. But Naples has flair. It feels crazy, disobedient, mysterious. White sheets up high on washing lines in small alleyways flap around in the sea breeze, the traffic winds its way quickly through the labyrinth of roads. It feels more honest than Rome, as if there's less of a facade. We meet Jochen at the harbour who has arrived by ship and bicycle to accompany us on our journey.
A two-hour hike leads us to Mount Vesuvius. We bivouac on the edge of the crater to use the gentle wind in the early morning for a first flight. Pompeii glows at night. Naples too. Deep down below us, millions of people are asleep. And Mount Vesuvious snoozes beside them like the sword of Damocles. The volcano is a geological time bomb and under careful seismological surveillance. It is a spooky night on this tinderbox. In the early morning, the rising ball of the sun expels all doubts. The canopies of our paragliders fill up with air in the magnificent sunshine which the famous singer Adriano Celentano would have harnessed for a worldwide hit. We take off and fly above paradise on earth, which appears to smile at us like a Pizza Napoli: the volcanic sand is as red as a Passata di Pomodoro, and the forest is as green as fresh basil. The earthly reward awaits us in the shape of the Amalfi coastal road – a must for every cycle fan.
We cross Cilento in southern Campania, a special region in Italy where a wild mountain range rises directly out of the sea. The trees adorning the olive groves look like primeval giants. Bang!! Bang!! Two shots from a shotgun next to us. A well-fed boar falls to the ground and rolls down into the valley. Our stomachs are rumbling. We dine with Fiorenzo, who runs the “Ristorante Belvedere” near Pisciotta at the coast. The cuisine is Mare e Monte – from the sea and the mountains, down-to-earth and traditional. The family business spoils us exquisitely with a pane cotta, “old” fried white bread, usually served as a greeting from the kitchen (from the pan with oil, garlic, parsley, a dash of water, salt, pepper). The antipasti: sausage meats and ham from the boar followed by risotto nero (with squid) as the first course. A plate of freshly caught fish cooked on the BBQ provides us with tasty protein. After such a high-quality gastronomical feast and exceptional hospitality, we find we cannot move one more step. With seriously overloaded yet blissfully full stomachs, we spontaneously decide to sleep on Fiorenzo’s roof top. The next morning, the whole family says goodbye. “Sempre qui”, (always available for you) says Fiorenzo, brushing away a big tear. As our bicycles start rolling again, I feel the pain of parting.
Now we start to cover distances. After three weeks of cycling, our bodies are used to the physical activity. With the slipstream our three-man-team creates, the kilometres are melting away fast. The section near Sapri where the cliffs of the national park of Pollino rise out of crystal clear water is a jewel for cyclists. One day, we cover 170 kilometres on a quiet coastal road and reach Tropea. We are exhausted after that journey. Afterwards, everybody finds his own speed for a while. Finding the power and the motivation is a question of mind over matter. I enjoy sections on my own. The monotony of pedalling quietly sets my thoughts free and frees up space for dreams. The south of Calabria is a poorer area. No splendour anymore. We often meet Africans, many are from Gambia and Senegal. The ghost city of San Ferdinando reminds me of a South American Favela neighbourhood due to the architecture. From the southern end of the mainland we travel to the second volcanic area – the island of Stromboli via the ferry to Sicily. A short ride later and we arrive in Milazzo where we then take a boat to the Aeolian Islands.
Stromboli island is quite small. There is only one volcanic peak and the town of the same name at the foot of the mountain. There are no cars on the island. In winter, it is pretty much abandoned, Stromboli lives from summer tourism. One of the pathways leads to the crater across the eastern side where the mighty north flank of the Stromboli opens up. Jet black in colour, it stretches 1,000 metres high from the coast to the active vent. The force of the wind is borderline for paragliding. Nevertheless, we manage to depart. Benefiting from the upwind of the north flank, we fly across the edge of the crater of the poisonous monster. It is hard to describe this scenery from the air with words. The smoke looks like a diabolic, windswept mass of water flowing like a riptide way down below us. Beneath that, an invisible abyss rumbles to itself and could spit out glowing rocks at any time depending on its state of mind. An evil backdrop… After an hour up in the air we drift above the town of Stromboli before landing on the black beach to the soothing sound of the sea water…
Seduced into stealing food
We approach Etna’s mighty cone from the eastern side. The recently explosive eruptions of the “Mongibello” have brought a lot of fresh lava and ash to light which completely cover the eternal snow on the volcano. On our climb, we discover deep holes created by falling red-hot rocks. It gets hotter around the feet with each metre of altitude we spend amongst the steaming boulders. When we reach the crater and see that the wind enables us to start, we do not hesitate. Three steps towards the southwest, and we are all flying at 3,323 metres of altitude at the same time. It is a wonderful world from a bird's-eye view – made of fire and frozen to stone. After 45 minutes we land almost 3,000 metres lower on the coast of the Ionian Sea.
A peloton of honour at the finish line
From Mount Etna, Tobi and Jochen start travelling back to Germany. I move on. Without my mates, I cycle to Cantania, the second-biggest city in Sicily, feeling a bit lost. Being alone is suddenly unusual. A class of school childeren cheer me on from the side of the road shouting “Sali! Vai!”. That motivates. Breathing fast, I paddle my roadtrain into the isolated inland mountains. Four days later, I pitch my tent high up near Alia for the last time. Shooting stars speed across the sky. An olive tree offers protection from the cold and the dew. There is a plastic bottle of Vino Sfuso on the clayey ground. It seems strangely as if everything that is part of my journey is somehow ensouled: the tanned leather shoes, the knitted hat, the knife. Life has been breathed into all these things. In the moonlight, the bent handlebars of my bicycle look like they are taking a break after completing the task.
The last day. At a photo break in Termini, a Sicilian cyclists stops and asks if he could accompany me on my last kilometres to Palermo. His name is Alessandro, he is astrophysicist, and is happy to offer me the slipstream. We cycle along the “Cobra Climb”, the Sicilian racing bike classic on the coast. Soon, I am in the middle of a field of cyclists. Alessandro tells them my story. “Bravo, complimenti!” I hear or “Che bello”. I am as proud as Marco Pantani, who is pulled by his team to win overall victory of the Giro di’Italia. When we reach the city, they all officially welcome me: “Bienvenuti a Palermo!”.
Alessandro cannot stop himself offering my tired legs a colourful city tour. He also wants to invite me for a pistachios pasta in the evening. Before that he organises an overnight stay for me in the neighbourhood of “Ballarò”, a cultural melting pot. Saturday night is the night. Bars, pubs, market stalls and Motorinos (mofas), fish mongers, olive farmers, betting offices, street vendors, live music and afro beat. There is just nothing not happening. It is a wonderful contrast after 3,000 kilometres on the bicycle. And a bed can be heaven!
Italian trip with a bicycle and paraglider
Do you need a lot of money for a personal dream trip? Elaborate logistics? Perfect equipment? Far away countries? No. Felix, Tobias and Jochen show that it mostly depends what you make out of your dreams.
The idea was to have a sustainable adventure that starts at your doorstep. From Reichenbach in Oberallgäu, they cycled through Austria and Italy all the way to Palermo. Without any other means than muscle power. They packed up tents, sleeping bags and paragliders. The flights across the EU's three highest active volcanoes (Vesuvius, Stromboli, Etna) were the salt in the minestrone soup for the experienced paraglider pilots Felix Wölk, Tobias Böck and Jochen Schweizer.
Travel time: 6 weeks in November/December. This time seems initially unusual, but after a cold crossing of the Alps, towards the south the weather gets warmer. Outside the peak season, the streets are emptier and the people more open. “Personnel planing” benefited from flexibility too: Felix cycled the whole tour (40 days), Tobias from Reichenbach to Acireale (35 days) and Jochen “only” from Boscotrecase to Acireale (14 days).
The stages: Reichenbach - Forchach im Lechtal - Zams - Lake Reschen - Meran - Kaltern - Besenello - Lazise - Mantua - Modena - Zocca - Pistoia - Monteriggioni - Acquapendente - Vejano - Rome - Acciarella - Sperlonga - Pozzuoli - Boscotrecase - Positano - Agropoli - Pisciotta - Granata - Tropea - Villa San Giovanni - Milazzo (Sicily) - Stromboli (island) - Furnari (Sicily) - Zafferana - Acireale - Gallio - Adrano - Agira - Alia - Palermo.
The tactics: The friends followed their “natural rhythm” and without a cyclometer. The choice of the route was made using a 1:200,000 map and with as many side roads as possible. They usually slept just when they wanted in a tent/sleeping bag, sometimes also in cheap guesthouses and B&Bs.
Handy tips from Felix Wölk
One-wheel trailer: The amount of volume comes in handy and saves time with daily packing and shopping. Also, you attract attention and come in contact with other people.
Bicycle: For big loads, better sturdy and heavy. A modified cross bicycle is great. Tuning: good brakes (not cantilever!), new sprockets with a mountain gear and rear derailleur, bicycle rack, mudguards, new wheels, normal pedals for normal shoes.
Leave your smartphone at home. It's better to ask people so you take part in real life and do not miss out all the time. And the battery is mostly empty anyway. Tip: a phone for the elderly, the batteries lasts for five days.
Leave the cyclometer at home, it's better to listen to your body and stay flexible.
Food and drinks: everything that’s local. That boosts the body’s defences, ensures a varied balanced diet and is tasty.
15. März 2017, Text: Felix Wölk