To get quickly across Italy to Florence we chose to cycle along the pancake flat Po valley for a couple of days. From a campsite at Alba where we ordered replacement sleeping mats to be delivered in Florence, we descended from the last of the vine covered hills with their views of hill-top towns on each peak and into Italy’s agricultural lands.
Averaging above 100 kilometres a day, we sped through farmlands where labourers worked late into the evening picking courgettes and crossed the Po river several times still finding enough hours in each day to visit a number of towns.
Conversation followed us: one day we had four in-depth chats about our trip and every day our recognition of Italian phrases for ‘where are you from?’ and ‘where are you going?’ improved. Markets were everywhere, with fresh cherries and binoculars finding their way into our panniers after one particularly successful shop in Cortemaggiore. We ducked into Piacenza on a Sunday afternoon and it seemed like the whole town was bicycle propelled, including a family of four out riding in their Sunday best: the man with a finely cut suit, talking on his cell phone and smoking a cigarette with one child in a child seat behind him, his wife with a skimpy dress and high heels with the other child on her bike. Our bikes turned heads in the local park as we ate our lunch.
We tried to follow a route suggested in a 2003 Lonely Planet Cycling Italy guide, but found some suggested tracks were badly maintained gravel, a bridge was out which would have meant a large detour and the roads didn’t really follow the river. We ended up making our own way, with equal amounts of time on the quiet raised banks of the argines and the busy industrial roads around them.
The biggest challenges came in the evenings. Even tiny white roads on our maps were heaving with traffic, the landscape offered little relief in the way of secluded spots for free-camping and there were of course no official campsites.
On our first night heading towards the Po river itself, we cycled late into the evening before we found a windbreak of trees with a path coming off the road. We had set up on a patch of dirt next to a vegetable crop, cooked dinner and boiled water for cups of tea when a farm truck pulled into the field. We greeted the surprised farmer with Buena Sera and luckily for us he kindly wished us a tranquil nights rest before he went to inspect his tomato plants. We were left to watch the sun set accompanied by the roar of trains on nearby railway tracks.
We looked for a place to camp on the river banks one afternoon and were attacked by ferocious tiger mosquitoes. They bit through my cycling shirt, gloves and swarmed around my legs as we rapidly retreated. Another not so secluded free camp spot saw them attacking us just on dusk as a family had driven out to look at the river in the sunset. We danced around like idiots wondering if we should go over and say hello but instead diving into our tent and watching them trying to attack us through it.
After the third night, we were tired of the flatness around us and the battles with bugs and sorting out a place to sleep and made a bee-line back to the hills. Passing Parma the roads became a little quieter but each village seemed to merge into the next leaving no quiet spaces for us to camp. We ended up cycling for 120 kilometres, our biggest day yet, before asking a bed and breakfast on top of a hill if we could camp on their lawn. We cooked dinner with a few less bugs, a view down the valley and across to a castle, and a donkey, dog and goose trying to sneak up on us, glad to be back in the hills.
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route map for this post
The map below shows the waypoints for this blog post. To view the details of our trip to date take a look at our complete route map.