Deborah Cater loves European cities. In this week's Blog of the Week she takes on the madness of Italy on two wheels
The plains of the river Po are flat, gloriously flat for one who currently lives half-way up a mountain. The only blips on the horizon are the Colli Euganei, a ridge of hills that run across the Venetian – Padova plains. Percy Bysshe Shelley penned a poem from there, Lines Written in the Euganean Hills describing the plain thus:
Beneath is spread like a green sea,
The waveless plain of Lombardy,
Bounded by the vaporous air,
Islanded by cities fair;
Ferrara is situated on the River Po – that makes it flat. That makes it an ideal town to cycle around. And many do, in fact a random piece of writing I came across said that Ferrara has more bicycles than any other town in Europe. I’m not sure the writer had been to Cambridge, but regardless of whether that is true or not there are lots of bicycles. We hired our bicycles from Pirani e Bagni by the railway station; a very reasonable €7 for the day. They are wonderful old bicycles – the kind I rode to school. You sit up on them, none of that unflattering hunching over the handlebars (think bottom cleavage and dangling bellies), instead you ride upright, gliding along the road.
We had a map. We found the centre. The medieval castle, the cathedral with its gargoyles, lions and griffins, the town hall which was a scaled down version of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, all with statues of men long dead – we found them all. We chained our bicycles and wandered around to take photographs and make closer inspection.
The university library was ‘discovered’ by Stefano after we had remounted – he has an uncanny ability to find libraries without seemingly consulting with anyone or thing. I sniffed a book that was on the ‘new’ shelf while Stefano and a librarian took charge of the photocopying of prefaces. The librarian gave me a funny look. Perhaps the odour of thousands of books on a daily basis removes the desire to sniff a new one; his heart cannot have been in his job.
The church and cemetery of San Cristoforo alla Certosa was another port of call. Cycling along the cypress lined lane towards the extensive brick edifice, sun warming our cheese salad piadine that sat in the basket that hung from my handlebars, we could have been in the countryside. Everywhere we went were stands for our bicycles. Our brand new padlocks seemed an expense not worth bothering with when you considered the age of the bikes, but we duly secured them. Secured them and then wandered among the graves and memorials of the long and recently dead, trying to work out their history, why some lived for 94 years and others only seven days.
Cobbled streets and bicycles – not a good combination. Half-way along a cobbled street and I understood why there were no other cyclists. My own bottom may be well-padded but the bicycle seat wasn’t. I’m not sure whether it is worse for a boy or a girl – it hurt us both. I wanted to get off but had an inkling that if I did I would neither want to get back on or be able to walk. We continued to jiggle along.
The map we had in our bag. We consulted it once and it worked, so why we ignored it the rest of the time I’m not overly sure. We headed out along a road that others were going down and then the cyclists thinned out and the cars became more numerous. We followed a wall. It had a sign – Military Area, Keep Out. Well, the longer Italian version with the same message. We kept following it until we came to a roundabout. Unsure of our position we… plumped for turning right. We were following another wall – one that looked medieval, that turned out to have been the old city wall – in which direction we knew not. Finally we asked for directions. We had ‘gone adrift’ in the words of Stefano, taken with the tide to become castaways in the ocean of motorcars. We found a cycle lane and started to ride, free of other cyclists and traffic, free of cobbled streets and places of interest to stop and look at. We cycled with abandon.
Stefano continued to cycle with abandon even when we had re-entered the town and other cyclists were sharing the lane. I followed him as we cut a swathe through the torrent of cyclists coming in the opposite direction. I continued to follow him as, weaving across the lanes he turned to talk to me, while oncoming cyclists took avoiding action and I shut my eyes in anticipation of a coming together. Luck rode with us that day – no mangled wheels and handlebars facing the wrong way. Stefano wants to get a tandem next time we go out on a ride.
"Okay," I say, "provided you sit at the back pedalling and I steer."
Cycle around Ferrara, it’s what the locals do and if they do it it must make sense. It saves on shoe leather. It is flat and so is not a strenuous activity (for those who like an easy jaunt) and you can store your increasingly heavy bag (if like me you pick up leaflets, pamphlets and cannot pass a bookshop without buying something) in the basket on the front.
"I love travelling. My travel methodology is never the same. Just as happy in a hostel with my trusty backpack as I am in a luxury hotel with Louis Vuitton trunks (if I owned any), on my own or with friends, no journey fits a template. It makes it exciting."
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