Summer 2016: Nelson had been living in Kraków for a year now. His EVS project having finished and Leon’s holidays laying ahead again, there was another possibility of travelling long and far. No question that we’d mount the bikes again! This time we were three, as Nelson’s old friend Jorge joined us for part of the trip, waving goodbye to old Europe before moving to California. Our path was to cross the Alps, our destination Rome, our objective: to say hello to the Pope.
The start was supposed to be Paris, however, the cheap flights from Madrid sent Nelson and Jorge to Nantes. Years later, Leon (whose schedule didn’t permit the earlier start and who rode in to Paris by bus) still has to listen to their stories of how phantastic that leg of the trip was, seemingly full of nothing but castle stays and surprise parties.
From Paris we raced towards Switzerland, long days on a rather straight line. The plan was to get to Lausanne, from where would Jorge leave us, sending his bike home by mail. We part a day and a town earlier, however, when in Pontarlier we’re receiving a great number of different invitations by Swiss hosts in directions absolutely not leading towards Lausanne.
Our Switzerland turns out to be a uniquely strange place even by our boundless standards. Bizarrely generous hosts and strangers, the outlandish green of happy cows“ pastures and our memorable night rides only served as prologue to the great big mission that Nelson had insisted on, trading all other route decisions against this one and only: To climb the Grand Saint-Bernard, the biggest and meanest pass of note in the entire bloody Alps. The only great passage there with more than 2000 metres of altitude to cover from bottom to top.
Mountains remained our companions. In Italy we cross the Apennines not once, not twice, but three times, because once on the Southern side we remembered we wanted to visit a friend in Bologna, having to cross back and forth again. It’s all fun and games in the French-speaking part of Europe, but in Italy we fell on some hard times occasionally, even having two or three truly dreadful nights after days full of getting lost uphill, hunger, argueing and general hopelessness. Finding hosts can be quite hard, too, in a country whose smallest village is still known world-wide and overrun with tourists. At least the weather played along – on the whole trip there was a single truly rainy day, and so on the many occasions we stranded on some random road- or seaside we wouldn’t bother to raise the tent anymore and just drop down on the spot.
Eventually, fun times returned. In Firenze we felt like we were back to old shape again. Finally everything was right again – but the unreal world started to intrude into our thoughts again (nothing feels more vividly real than such a journey, and I’m sure that if one life is a dream it must be the everyday one, that in which whatever unexpected thing may change everything by tomorrow, however dull the small-scale events of life and work are; while our bike trips are reliably ruled by the steady rhythm of go-to-the-next-place, however bizarre the escalating adventures within that solid frame may turn out). Nelson in particular needed a flat and a job as soon as possible after his return to Kraków – so by then he started to feel he really needed to return as soon as possible, too. And yet to still see Rome, of course! No time for Tuscany, better: to race and spend a few days in the capital. Leon needed a slower pace, and so we split for a short while; Nelson heading out via Arezzo at 150 kilometres a day, Leon slowly sauntering towards Siena.
Those last days sure kept us thrilled. We met again in Rome, Nelson having arrived two days before Leon, both of us having been hunted by boars and, in Nelson’s case, having collided with one. We did get to meet the Pope and we did get to explore the city together. Then Nelson took the soonest train instead of the next best more than a week later, and ended up not regretting it, but indeed finding flat and job right after his return.
This trip wasn’t as unique anymore as the first – but perhaps more of a life changer for both of us, though we couldn’t have known at the time (hence excuse the sappy pathos, please). The paths we’ve taken since, Nelson’s as a programmer and Leon’s as a painter and printmaker, both had their definitive beginnings in these days between absinthe and Alps.