Arts Culture Travel

European Voices -the Freedom of Movement Tour part 14 – following Hannibal

After a short break it’s time to find out how the Freedom of Movement Tour guys are getting on and this time we follow the trail of Hannibal as we go from Rome to the footsteps of the Pyrenees which in some cases, is proving as difficult as the ancient invader experienced! Chiara and Alex are travelling across Europe on bicycle to discover the wonderful right of freedom of movement within the European Union. Don’t forget to follow them on their Facebook page , Tumblr and their Twitter handle. Chiara takes up the story from here.

It pains me to admit it, but getting to Rome still has a hint of a homely feeling, even though I rationally despise the place and I don’t actually have a life there past the occasional Christmas dinner or long weekend at the beach. I can’t decide if it is more the scent of tomato sauce simmering away in any given flat, or that of piles of fermenting rubbish that have not been collected in weeks; not sure if it is the familiar sight of the nunnery next door, or that of the lines of prostitutes and associated dirty bastards across the road from it; or would it be that the potholes I have been cycling through all my life are still there awaiting for me, just like the good old Colosseo? Who knows, really. The fact remains that after all the travelling of the past months Rome feels a bit like home again.

We manage to get to the ancient city at the end of July, just in time to jump from a friend’s 40th birthday party – which reminds me of the fact that I’m quite rapidly turning into an old saggy witch – to my mum’s 70+th – which reminds me of exactly the same thing, only with more food and less booze. As if this wasn’t enough evidence of my corporal decadence, we also finally manage to meet my friend’s newborn baby (born during our trip!). She wriggles in my arms like a screaming dried prune and, as I catch a glimpse of my own and her reflection in the mirror, I know that we already have a good understanding. These three happenings turn out to be the maximum level of movida we get during our stay, as on August the 1st, and for the whole month, Rome – like any other big city in Italy – turns into a zombie apocalypse film set.

Food, food, food ..and Brexit…

We react to this by spending most of our time there either eating or digesting. Alex takes up afternoon napping with extreme eagerness. To be fair, we also dig the garden up, disarm my parents’ garage of assorted crap, and fix/replace several parts of our bikes – we come to the conclusion that while I have the tendency to break my body, Alex has the tendency to break his bike instead.

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If it wasn’t for my Facebook wall and the BBC, I could almost forget about Brexit. But no, every morning as I open my eyes, Brexit is there.

One sweltering afternoon, we cycle across the zombie apocalypse and familiar potholes to go and meet Etsuko, fellow EU/UK citizen left in limbo by Brexit, with whom we spend a night sharing bouts of desperation and great food. I feel the heat is dangerously affecting me again, but luckily I manage to drink enough wine to both re-hydrate me and make me forget about the potential impending death.

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Then, climate change kicks in and all of a sudden we find ourselves locked in the house for days, while outside the Roman zombie apocalypse has somehow transformed itself into a tropical Blade Runner. Looking at lightening storms and falling trees from our window, we congratulate ourselves for having decided to laze about in Rome a bit longer.

But the time finally comes. We pack again, we leave again. This time it feels more difficult, our energy is cracked and crumbled like a Roman road, our spirit is a fallen tree struck by lightening, we argue over trifling matters related to space and/or time: Would this something fit in our panniers? How early should we get to that somewhere? Alex thinks that nothing fits anywhere and we are always too late, while APPARENTLY for me everything is like Mary Poppins’ bag, and hours are not divided into seconds or minutes but into quarters or halves.

The boat from hell

Grimaldi Lines, operating the ferry between Civitavecchia and Barcelona, gives me the opportunity to temporarily shift my anger from Brexit (or my husband, depending) to them. During this trip we have been on eight international ferries and have experienced a variety of treatments reserved to cycle tourers, ranging from red carpet to deportation convoy. Grimaldi Lines experience was more like the latter, only followed in its level of unpleasantness by the Greek Anek Lines. We realise that the main problem is that in some countries (especially southern European) we are not recognised as people on a vehicle, but rather infantile and patronised like children playing with their toys: we should go play somewhere else.

In Anek Lines we experienced incompetence: at the check-in desk they insisted that we should check in with the pedestrians and take the shuttle to the ferry WITH our bikes and luggage; the shuttle driver and his – seemingly – bodyguard insisted that we should not; the security people, after seizing our camping gas, were left to baby sit us and provide empathy, while the desk and the driver argued about our future. After half an hour we said goodbye to our new best friends at security, and cycled to the ferry.

On the Italian Grimaldi, we now experience not only incompetence but open hostility: after a good bit of queuing together with the motor vehicles (nobody told us otherwise) we get sent back to queue with the pedestrians, which means having to carve our way between mounds of flesh mixed with prams. Alex and I lose sight of each other in the human centipede and when I remonstrate with the security that bikes are actually vehicles I find myself shouted at by two *armed* blokes. I give in while formulating in my head a strongly-worded letter and, when Alex and I are finally reunited past security, we push the bikes like tame schoolchildren in the pedestrian line, until a high viz guy shepherds us… guess where? Yes, back to the vehicle line.

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In Spain we get consoled by our friends and multiple portions of tortilla de patatas. But Spain proves also very difficult. The temperature is still too hot, the landscape too vast and desertic, and I can’t cycle more than 30-40 kms without feeling my brain turning into a tortilla de brain. We resign to take more trains than originally planned, but that – being something to do with time keeping and accuracy, see above – stresses Alex out beyond imagination, while amuses me likewise (I’m a bad wife).

Capital twenty three

When we reach Madrid, our 23rd capital, we are faced with the trip to Portugal and return from Portugal (to head to France) issue. Cycling the whole way is too far for the time we have and too hot for my sizzling neurons. The plan is – to Alex’s inner horror – to take a train, cycle a bit across the border, then take another train into Lisbon or vicinity (and back). It is not only because we like cycling across peaceful and open borders, but it is also because – as this trip is teaching us, sometimes the hard way – many direct international trains don’t allow bicycle transport. This in most cases is true unless bikes are dismantled and packed away, which for many cycle tourers on long trips i.e. with considerable luggage, it is impossible to do. Again, we feel treated like children dragging toys around. So, in those cases the only solution is to take local trains: they normally don’t cross borders, so we do that instead! However, after spending about two days in a row in Madrid Atocha’s jungle (if you’ve been there you know what I mean), and getting to know all its flora and fauna, we realise that all the potential solutions are unworkable, either because the connection times are too tight or don’t fit in with each other (Alex’s worst nightmare, second only to Brexit) or because there are works on the lines and bike transport is temporarily not allowed on some trains, or because simply it costs too much for our pockets. We resign ourselves to skip Portugal and I feel like I’ve failed.

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The political borders we have crossed so far have been mostly invisible. Their invisibility makes them easy to cross. I suppose this is what freedom of movement means in our European sense. But there are other invisible borders, and they are not as easy. First of all, there are our physical limitations, the constraints of the weather, the total dependence on temperature that messes up with our homeostasis – as I am learning the hard way. Then there are the geographical borders to overcome – mountains, rivers, seas. Not very invisible, I know, but we are used to ignoring them by just simply flying over them. When this is not possible or desirable, a big border resumes itself. Between Romania and Bulgaria, the Danube divides. The borders between the two countries are mostly open (non-Schengen), but this doesn’t mean that the two people actually meet. Perhaps they do fly between Bucharest and Sofia, they take the occasional train or bus to the other side, they cross the Giurgiu-Ruse bridge, but this doesn’t seem to happen elsewhere. From Vidin in Bulgaria you can see Romania across the Danube, yet no local we spoke to had ever been to its Romanian counterpart, Calafat, despite it being only 20 km away. The bridge that was built some years ago, perhaps due to a high toll, seems to divide more than connect, it and the Danube becoming a border we only just managed to cycle across. I had witnessed something similar many years ago, between Spain and Portugal. While interrailing, I found myself stranded for a whole day somewhere in the very south of Spain, in the attempt to cross into Portugal by train. Apparently, the two countries had different rail track gauges which didn’t allow interoperability, so a (not very efficient) bus connection was set up. Twenty years later (sigh!), Alex and I still face a similar problem, in a more modern version. Nowadays crossing by train between Spain and Portugal is possible, yes, albeit very expensive and only limited to a few high speed lines. This is a widespread problem. Regional trains across Europe tend to dump you at the border. Cross at your own risk. If the political borders are open but the infrastructures to allow easy crossing are not there, then no knowledge or integration is possible. Unless you fly or drive everywhere, of course, but I suppose this won’t be sustainable for much longer. Perhaps our Europe should think about this…once it stops having to worry about things like the far-right surge. And Brexit.

Our trip is so far teaching us also about what periphery really means. We had to skip Bucharest, our easternmost point on land, and Cyprus at sea. We had to miss Malta, not only because it was our southernmost point, but it is also very inconveniently an island. We almost didn’t make it to Stockholm and subsequently Helsinki, our northernmost spots, as we were freaking out about not having the possibility of putting bikes on trains as a back-up plan. But then we were assisted by good weather and our stubbornness and we got there despite the usual bike&body problems. Now we are faced with not being able to reach our westernmost goal. The physical, geographical, atmospheric and infrastructural borders all play against us, while the political borders are the least of our problems. How many people find themselves in this position elsewhere in the world? We ask ourselves whether the people of Scandinavia, Romania, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal and all the other fringe areas of Europe, feel isolated, forgotten, not part of it. Do they feel disenfranchised like the people who voted for Brexit? Or do they realise more the importance of Europe, of unity and cooperation, just because they are always on the verge of being spun out of it by the centrifugal force?

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We turn on our wheels and head north, in search of something easy and of some cooler weather. We reach the Spanish Basque Countries under the rain. For once, I am glad of it. I used to live there, so it feels like another little homecoming and a little like a holiday again, a little luxury. After a couple of days – a very fast introductory course to Basque culture and cuisine  for Alex – we cycle across the border to the French part. It’s nice and sunny but also windy and relatively cool, so we decide to increase the distance. Bad idea. When we arrive in Bayonne, my brain is now omelette de brain.

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For these weeks we thank my family and friends in Rome; Kieran, Cristina and her family; Rocio and Elias; and Laurie and her mother. Thank you also to Rory and his friend for offering accommodation in Portugal – we were gutted not to reach it. And lastly, thanks to my ex-flatmate Iker, for serendipitously appearing at the invisible border between the Spanish and the French Basque Countries.

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