Packing up our free-camp early this morning, a man ambled into the woods just as we were heading out. He didn't smile or wave, he just adjusted his floppy hat and tightened his grips on the stick he carried in one hand, and the basket he held in the other before trudging further into the trees. Odd.
By the time we pushed our bikes up to the road, another car had stopped at our little turn-off and this time an older man and woman stepped out. They fished a couple of walking sticks and a basket out of their trunk, and I went over to talk to them before they headed into the woods. My suspicions were confirmed: these people were out hunting for mushrooms! The older man informed me that they were searching for porcini mushrooms, but that they would need a lot of luck to find some. The woman smiled and said that either way, they would get a nice walk. I wished them luck and we rode off for a day of island exploring.
…4 kilometers later
We're sitting on the outdoor patio of a coastal cafe in the northern Elba town of Cavo. Yachts bob contentedly in the port, and I'm watching a whole class of school kids don bright orange life preservers for some sort of sailing lesson or adventure field trip.
Sipping our cappuccinos, watching an old man slowly bike by on his seafoam green beach cruiser, we can't help but feel infinitely grateful. Here we are, on a lush island off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean with everything we own a few feet away. How can this be real!?!
It is so much more vibrant and green here than the mainland; the Elban hills are densely forested as far as the eye can see, giving a slightly more primitive, unspoiled feeling to the land. We joke about dinosaurs appearing around the bends in the road, feeling a bit like we're in Jurassic Park or on the island from Lost. A very fashionable bronzed woman walks by, her huge black sunglasses perched on her tan little nose, reminding us that we are not on some savage island, but are in fact, right next to Italy.
After our leisurely coffee and writing session, we ran around back to the cafe's personal beach and went for our first swim of the day. We hopped and splashed around like giddy kids, too happy to really contain the feeling. The water was clear blue and the sky was a clear blue, we were on ELBA, and really, could it get any better than that?? With a swim under our belts, we were now ready to start our cycling day. Easy, slow climbs with stunning views took up several hours, with many stops to take pictures of lush green hills and azure sea. During this time we had the narrow road almost exclusively to ourselves; we only encountered about five cars over the course of several hours!
It was around lunchtime when our nice, gradual uphills took a turn downwards and sent us coasting for kilometers. It was exhilarating until the road turned upwards once more, this time much more steeply. What followed was a grueling 400 meter ascent, perhaps the steepest we've climbed yet. Tyler still managed to pass the racing cyclists, though, and was waiting for me when I finally made it to the top. :-)
There was a well-placed picnic area after all this climbing so we wheeled into the shade and set up on one of the wooden tables. Plain, leftover pasta sprinkled with salt was not the most appealing of lunches, but it sure did hit the spot and gave us enough energy for the last little bit of climb before another very steep downhill. Our brakes screeched loudly (conveniently warning oncoming traffic of our presence) as we took the descent very slowly. As we neared the large (by island standards) city of Portoferraio, traffic picked up and we were well outnumbered by speedy locals and tourists in large camper vans.
One the way down, one very impatient driver tried to pass Tyler when there wasn't enough room. The silver SUV clipped his pannier, sending him off balance. Curses ensued. Luckily everyone was moving pretty slowly and Tyler managed to get his bike under control, avoiding a fall.
Okay, but a little shaken up and pissed off at vehicles, we continued down the road. At the bottom we decided it was time to look for water and a place to camp. Sometimes finding water can be a real annoyance but everything was coming up roses today; we quickly discovered a seemingly broken roadside tap that we coaxed into operation with our trusty vise grips (the most indispensable tool we brought with us).
With the all-important water situation handled, it was time to find a place to sleep. Flat land is a scarce commodity on Elba. On one side of the road, the terrain plunges steeply towards the sea, and on the other, the land rises very quickly into hills and mountains. Finding ourselves in a much more inhabited part of the island than we'd free-camped in last night, any flat land belonged to someone and was fenced off. There weren't any campsites nearby, so we decided to ask one of the locals if we could set our tent up on some hopefully flat bit of their private land.
Shortly after this decision, I saw a woman leaving her home to go for a walk. I ran up to her, and in my best attempt at Italian, told her our situation and asked if we could pitch a tent on one of the flat levels of her terraced ground. She didn't seem to mind in the least and told us we could set up wherever we wanted to. Now we're in our tent, right off a busy road, camped overlooking the ocean on the grounds of some apartment complex! Success again.