Our taste buds are not ready for Italy. Yesterday we had grapes that were so flavorful (and cheap!) they were hardly recognizable as the fruit I've known my entire life. They had so much flavor it was as if we were eating grape-shaped perfume capsules.
Today we tried plums with similar results when Tara stopped at a fruit stand in morning to pick a few out. Sitting on a park bench in the shade we both eyed the purple orbs she'd purchased with genuine excitement, wondering what they would taste like. It was the most deliciously fragrant specimen of plum either of us has ever encountered.
Where has real fruit been all these years? What is my favorite fruit, the orange, really supposed to taste like? The difference in flavor is so staggering I am actually offended by what is sold in the USA as fruit. Even our farmer's markets don't compare (to be fair, I did grow up in Minnesota).
After our flavor fest we set off on a route around Lago di Como, this time overloading our visual cortex with breathtaking views of villas nestled everywhere in the mountains overlooking the lake. I've been telling Tara we need to stop using absolutes in our journal entries, opting instead to expand our vocabulary to more vivid and useful descriptors. Maybe in my next journal entry. We really did come to the agreement that the coastline of Lago di Como is the most visually stunning thing we've ever encountered. It definitely tops Cornwall, the French Riviera, Verdon Gorge and the Swiss Alps. Visual perfection.
Sadly, our photos really didn't do justice to the sparkling water and the rich green mountains jutting out all around it. The hillside villages speckling the green with oranges and yellows didn't really translate either. Maybe the splendor can't be captured on film (or memory cards)?
About a third of the way into our route we had a slight detour planned that I was very excited about: cycling up to Ghisallo to see its bicycle museum and the chapel of Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cycling. When telling Tara about this interesting side trip I casually glossed out the 550 meter climb over 9km required to get there. I later learned that the ascent has served as the final, grueling leg for many famous Italian cycle races.
As we turned away from the rolling hillsides along the coast of Lago di Como my usual tack of "just 50 more meters honey!" lasted exactly once. Having just finished the Swiss Alps, Tara was ready for a few easy days and even I agreed that the 14% grade in front of us wasn't very inviting.
After a few minutes of talking about the merits of continuing (great views, cool museum, we'll probably only be here once, etc) Tara was unconvinced. So, as a (cycling) first, we split up! I gave Tara the laptop and she found a shady spot near a roadside chapel to work on a brilliant journal entry while I slogged up to the top alone. I was slightly bummed to be riding by myself until a pack of Italian club riders passed me on one of the many switchbacks. Suddenly I had a mission.
Usually I think it is annoying when people take being passed as a sign to race but this time around I didn't care. I was going to keep up with them, 40 kilos of extra weight and all. I held pace for just over 2km (practically straight up) before my legs gave out. More absolutes: I am certain that I've never pedaled so hard in my entire life. Later on I caught them as they filled their water bottles at a particularly slow fountain. Their congratulatory cheers were nice to hear but the next time they passed, I didn't give chase.
Taking things a little slower for the rest of the ascent, I met a very nice english speaking Italian named Filippo who'd recently purchased his first touring bike. He was astounded when I told him about our route and when I mentioned my wife at the bottom of the "hill" he immediately remembered her. She smiled up at him and continued cozily tapping away at her computer while we destroyed our muscles heeding the mostly useless call of testosterone.
Before we parted ways he happily took one of our cards and repeatedly asked if there was anything we needed. After many thanks I finally assured him we were quite well. Once he was satisfied we were okay, he disappeared up the hill. When I reached the top a few minutes behind, he was waiting to cheer me on and take my picture. If you're reading this, thanks for the encouragement Filippo!
Here are photos from the museum, it was full of cycling history:
The ride down was as exciting as the ride up and a lot easier: fast, full of switchbacks, and devoid of waiting for Tara (I always worry if she was okay when I zip down hills ahead of her). I screamed down the hill, literally and figuratively; I was singing very loudly! I reached the bottom to find a very rested Tara who couldn't have looked more pleased. She greeted me with a huge hug and asked me all about the ride, the chapel, and the museum. She was thrilled that I had a good time and equally thrilled she had decided to relax and wait.
Back together again, we rode into the famous ritzy lakeside town of Bellagio where we treated ourselves to our daily dose of gelato. When we were saving for this trip we said we would eat gelato in Italy every day and we weren't kidding! Today I had Coconut, Rock (think Rocky Road), and Chocolate, while Tara had After Eight (mint & chocolate), vanilla, and some caramelly flavor that had pine nuts decorating the top. The highlight of Bellagio was the gelato; it was a beautiful town, but stuffed with buses and thick with tourists so we happily left and set off for the last leg of our trip, to Como.
Outside of Bellagio the road turned into a series of exhausting, hilly climbs with comparatively short bouts of coasting. We were very tired and began counting down the kilometers as we approached our destination. Upon arriving we realized the campsite was another 5km south and would run us nearly 40 euro. We decided to free-camp. Both tired, we left town on a series of busy streets and highways until we found a pretty poor excuse for a free-camp near some sort of industrial facility.
Tara's worst fear came true as she was making dinner: someone caught us. A security guard no less! He'd spotted our camp stove. As he marched over to our not-so-secluded area, she froze like a deer in headlights. I strolled over to him, mostly unconcerned and trying my best to communicate with what little Italian I know. Our conversation was more like a game of charades than talking. In the end, he just wanted to make sure we didn't litter, or continue to use our camp stove. Apparently the factory would EXPLODE (the guard's hands moved dramatically as he yelled "BOOM!") if we lit a fire.
After bidding us farewell and goodnight he headed back to his post, but not before offering us both a coffee! We heartily agreed and a few minutes later he returned, all smiles, with hot beverages for us. On his way out he turned around again, this time to tell us that his next shift started at 6AM the following morning and he'd see us then (we think)!
What a day.
Oh, and this guy was hanging out on Tara's bike this morning: