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On the road . October 2010 . France, Italy and Tunisia

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go back flamingos in Camargue marchlands in southern France

Hotel Maison Dorée, Tunis, Tunisia, 26-11-10
Cycling the Mediterranean Islands
Nîmes to Bonifacio
(10 cycle days; 1 rest days; 599km; 6351m)

Nîmes to St. Mitre-les-Remparts (111km; 248m)
St. Mitre-les-Remparts to Marseille + overnight ferry to Bastia (55km; 603m)
Bastia to Lido de la Marana (15km; 79m)
Lido de la Marana to St. Florent (31km; 383m)
St. Florent to Algajola (53km; 667m)
Algajola to Galéria (56km; 609m)
Galéria to Portu (53km; 619m)
Portu to Calcatoggio (64km; 960m)
Calcatoggio to Porto Pollo (79km; 1118m)
Porto Pollo to Bonifacio (82km; 1065m)

Over dinner and route planning
Over dinner with Shoko and Gerry, that question pops up again:
"Do you two ever argue?"

Well, the answer to that is: "Yes, of course we do", and I suspect like most couples, often over the same boring things. But how do you discuss this really; over dinner and all. Especially if both parties are present. It is a guaranteed way to start another argument.

Ali captures the moment at hand and just like during the real thing, replies that I am the stubborn one. I don't feel like retaliating and just grimace a bit. You know, I suspect I am stubborn. You can't get yourself and a loaded bike to the top of a 4000 metre mountain pass without some degree of persistence. You have to be a bit hardened to cope with life on the road for such an extended period of time. And you have to believe in yourself. You also have to learn to bite your tongue, when your husband becomes annoying. I'm not always good at that, so I'm quite proud of my effort tonight.

One of the things we regularly hiss about, is my inability to keep up with Aaldrik: alias Superman. Lately though, the route planning has managed a few good rounds in the ring as well. And the next day becomes one of those days.

I can hear Ali answer Gerry's question from the bathroom. He has asked how far we will cycle today. "Oh about half way; sixty kilometres"; comes the reply. Via the main highway it is roughly 120 kilometres from Nîmes to Marseilles, but I prefer not to travel along the arterial roads and Ali has planned a detour route through the Camargue. Strategising our routes is left up to him, because he loves maps and can ponder over them - in raptures mind you - for hours. Me? Well, I find maps useful. So there is the difference and I hope that explains why it makes sense that he plans the trip. Besides, I can hardly see the little squiggly lines these days without my reading glasses and on the road, that is a hassle.

So this statement of cycling roughly 60 kilometres is said with a cool, nonchalant air. The "Aah, sixty k's: easy peasy" type of reply. I think from the bathroom: "Excellent, we'll be there early". Gerry must have been reading my thoughts and says to Ali: "You'll be there before lunchtime". And with that confirmation, there seems no cause for me to rush through the morning chores. I answer a few emails before everything is finally packed and we leave quite late at 11am.

Just to make sure I heard Ali correctly, I check down the road when having lunch that 60 kilometres really is the plan for today. "About 70";comes the reply.

I have always loved the Camargue marshlands of France, though today is a little different than I remember it. The rice fields are not their usual lustrous green tone and the mosquitoes are viscous beyond belief. Though I did expect the little creatures to be around, I wasn't impressed with riding through crispy burnt off paddocks. The ambience was not particularly spectacular, even if there were flamingos present. So when we got to the - unavoidable - major highway with its traffic that streamed for hours on end, I was feeling a little weary of the day. We had also done 90 kilometres by this stage and still had 20 more to do.

Doesn't really matter what is said or done at this point, the tension is already there and it is better to just change the subject; which is what I am going to do now and what also happened at the dinner table with Gerry and Shoko. Somehow that night, the conversation went from a discussion about "two people having an argument" to the fact that "Canada is a big country". Seriously, it did. And how we actually got there, I cannot recall now and to be honest, like all the stupid arguments, it doesn't really matter.

Let's go back to the Friday morning of our stay in Nîmes. The first day of the month and a grand day for both boys to have a stinking hangover. Shoko doesn't drink, so she was fine and I pulled myself away from the fits of laughter at a still reasonable hour. But the boys: oh dear, the boys managed to leave a nice empty bottle collection by the door.

While Friday was a write-off and Gerry needed a bit of quality nap time throughout the day, the prior evening was a lot of fun. The Irish bar in town served good beers which was followed by pizza and red wine back at home. Catching up where we last left off took a bit of work nin the beginning because initially there was some initial confusion as too exactly how long ago that was. There were takers for 4 years and others for two and a half ago. Nonetheless, there was plenty to talk about.

So with Friday gone, Saturday was spent roaming around the market and town and catching up on all the things that were supposed be done on Friday. I was sure that I had studied something in art history about this ancient Roman city. There was something famous that they had built here. While the Arènes de Nîmes is pretty spectacular, I knew it wasn't that. I suggested a cathedral, but that got shot down quickly by the boys. And then the night before our planned bike outing on Sunday, I was looking on internet and it came to me. Pont du Gard: that was it. Part of a 50 kilometre aqueduct built in the first century AD. Not only is it the highest created, but in all its length it only descends 17 metres, which demonstrates brilliant engineering skills. Amazing Roman genius aside, the cycling routes out and around this area are fabulous, as is the picnic lunch we muster together between us.

Monday it rains and Tuesday we leave.

The evening we spend at the campground in St. Mitre-les-Remparts (111km; 248m), which is a lovely place and has an owner who gives us a little discount because we came to his place by bike.

Camping Sandamian Corsica

Par for the Corse
The smallest roads we can find mean a cut through countryside with a decent climb before hitting the coast. There are plenty of undulations, but it is a rewarding cycle and the weather doesn't do anything disappointing. Roadworks play in our favour and the ride into Marseille (55km; 603m) is almost car free until the last few kilometres. Somehow we manage to stay on the water's edge and we invariably hit the port quite hassle free. Not bad for the second most populous city in France.

SNCM Ferries charge us 130 euros for the couch next to the cafe on the overnight ride to Bastia. Sailing to L'Île-Rousse was not possible as the journey was already booked and the consequence of that was a relatively empty boat to Bastia. Still embedded in my mind is the spectacular vision of sunlit sandstone buildings perched on coastal cliffs as we sail out of Marseille. The daylight fades and twinkling street lamps dim as we are surrounded by open sea. We say goodbye to mainland France.

We say hello to Corsica at the rather useless time of 7.00am, after a broken night's sleep and bad morning coffee. Three reasons enough to find a campground close by and chill out for the day. An hour and a half later, with tourist information pamphlets in the panniers, we pedal south out of town towards Lido de la Marana (15km; 79m) giving ourselves a taste of what traffic can be like on the N193 highway on the east of Corsica . Luckily, the west will prove to be a lot quieter, but it is fairly late in the year and I'm not sure that cycling anywhere in Corsica in peak season would be a recommendation. Camping Sandamiano is a great beach set-up, though again if it were full, it would be mayhem.

Up and away
A bike path takes us back to the main road which is a bit of effort to enter, even with a roundabout, but we turn off in the direction of the Défile de Lancone soon enough. The climbing begins, but it is an easy 3-4% average and only very occasionally pushing 6%. Tailwind pushes us effortlessly up to Bocca de San Stefanu [369m] by around lunchtime. It isn't a high altitude, but it really feels like we are in the mountains. And with Mount Cinto [2706m] being the highest peak in the Haute-Corse that's still some climbing to do. But we aren't actually going there on this trip and for now, we only have to freewheel the 14 kilometre long downhill to Oletta. Still perched up on a cliff there's a bit more descent on a better road to San Firuenzu / St. Florent (31km; 383m).

The rocky domain as far as the eye can see is pom-pom dotted with trees; like a life size aboriginal artwork. Prickly pears drop pink and purple fruit as the olive bushes and cork acorns gather morning dew on the end of every bud. The air is fresh and our ride is a medley of low easy gradients going both up and down until we hit the pass Bocco di Vezzu [350m]. A magnificent downward pedal on the N1197 changes the landscape to ocean views below sheer-faced cliffs. Exhilarating riding and enough to ignore the boisterously noisy motorcycle riders showing off their speed and throb. Closer to L'Île-Rousse the traffic becomes more aggressive and the shoulder disappears, but this unpleasantness is short lived. Camping de la Plage in Algajola (53km; 667m) is green and grassy and there are still a number of holiday makers around these parts.

The Trinicellu [Little Train] running along the coast from Calvi to Bastia chugs directly past the field where our tent is pitched. The narrow gauge railway also has a scenic route between Ponte Lecchia and Ajaccio via Corte and Vizzavona. Highlights include crossing the Vecchio viaduct, engineered by Gustav Eiffel; and the ease with which you can get off and follow the numerous walking trails in the pine and chestnut tree forest. The Timetable is a little restricted, so it pays to check when you need to continue on to the next stage. For more information about the route: Direct Corsica or about the history: Corsica's Trinicellu.

no camping

The logic of campground owners is sometimes quite baffling. At three in the morning, when I stumble in complete darkness to the pitch black toilet blocks, I notice the reception area is lit in a glorious blaze of neon.

It is a decent climb to the first and highest point of the day, though according to locals, not worthy of calling a Bocca [203m]. The drop into Calvi is as drastic as the surprise of the tourism it harbours. We have lunch by the port and start the climb back out of town and up to Bocca Seria [146m]. Again a whirl downhill to the valley follows. About 15 kilometres out of Calvi, the road is in incredibly poor condition. Winding its way along bays of mica sand and pebble beaches back up to Bocca Basa [131m], we embark on another moment of pleasure as we twirl towards the bridge leading us to a t-junction and the road into Galéria (56km; 609m).

Cycling in Corsica has so far been absolutely stunning. Crossing the Haute Corse felt like being in Peru without the llamas. If you don't like climbing, then this is definitely not the place to come. But it isn't too challenging along the stretch from Calvi to Piana. In the lower south west region though, it is definitely much more difficult, with gradients averaging double figures. But here, beautiful coastal roads of 3-4% will wind you along limestone cliffs with the ruggedness of Oregon and California mixed with Baja's desolation. And once you have left Calvi, the road is tranquil - though possibly not the case in summer.

Wild camping along the coastal areas is very limited. Signs warning off those with any inclination to stealth camp are plentiful in all the spots that could be used for overnight sleeping. Most of the surrounds are craggy slopes and impossible to pitch a tent on. And when you do spy a flat spot, you are left with the question of wondering how you might get there with a loaded bike.

Just near the bridge before Galéria there is a forested section, which you could possibly sneak into and the camping car park on the outskirts of town might also be an option. Otherwise you are left to spend the night at the local campground. And there is nothing flamboyant about Camping Ideal, but I'm sure in the buzz of peak times, it has its charm. Now, the weary signs of season end are showing: blue and green wrapped caravans will lie in wait over the winter months for spring and owners with holiday vibes to return. The weather doesn't help the drab image. It has been overcast all day and the perpetual threat of rain finally eventuates in the evening.

It began raining at 8.00pm last night and it stops at 8.45am this morning. Soppy tent; soppy ground and a soppy start to the day. The dreariness remains, while patches of blue try desperately to show their brilliance. They don't really succeed, but the cooler conditions are perfect for climbing. Another gorgeous ride today: up and down the coastal cliffs. With each bend I scan the following rock face for signs of our path. Sometimes the etching is impossible to see and I'm normally pretty good at spotting the groove. But this is quite an untouched section of road. Amazing that this still exists.

The day continues like a fairground roller coaster: invigorating highs followed by dramatic downs. We tower over stony crags watching an emerald blue ocean lap the feet of red rock. There are two passes; two significant drops and one short climb ending the day in Portu (53km; 619m). The nicely terraced Camping Sole e Vista has attitude pricing and by that I mean it is not only expensive, but we even have to pay 50 cents each for our bicycles. Normally I would like to boycott such a place, but at this time of year, your choices are limited and besides, I can't be bothered moving.

Who needs wings when I've got my bike and mp3 player
Giant gums line the morning path: their bark shredded like a giant cat has had a perfect trunk-scratching session. The first 5 kilometres leading away from Portu, which deserves more than its small dot on our map, brings us to a bridge. A 6-8% climb eases only slightly after a kilometre as we near three limestone juts. Shining like gold in the sun's reflection, I'm reminded of the three sisters in the Blue Mountains. Locals are collecting mushrooms. It feels like I'm cycling through an outside cave. Coastal rock formations like dusty pink stalagmites protrude high in the sky, where jet fighters resonate in the silence. This curvy windy path leads all the way to Piana. It is really beautiful.

Like most villages in Corsica, the climb out is hard work but it is followed by a monster 8 kilometre drop. The next 100 metre ascent is made easy pedalling in rhythm to the Rick Wakeman-style arpeggios in Muse's: "To die for your sins". I reach the top just as the finale hits its minor chord. Looking towards the heavens, I half expect to see a chorus of angels. Instead a lone eagle soars. I think: who needs wings when I've got my bike and mp3 player?

We could have done with somewhere to camp though. There is nothing suitable and little crosses through tent signs are plastered everywhere. We keep pedalling and pull in and out of spots that are locked up for the season or totally unsuitable to wild camp. The last campground near Calcatoggio (64km; 960m) allows us to pitch the tent for the night, even though it is not open for business.

giant mushrooms on Corsica

A splash of cycla-men
Competing with the peppery gum and spicy pine scents, an unpleasant odour assaults my nostrils: something akin to decaying rubbish; possibly even a dead dog. And then we pass it: a spiny boar hide, head intact, hanging on a wire fence. This is obviously the home of a proud rifle owner: someone who likes to show off his wild trophy to all who pass by. We have seen this form of boasting on a few occasions now and it puts all those colourful plastic tubes lying roadside into perspective. Someone has also painted AK14 on the asphalt in blue paint. I don't think that person was excited about publicly sharing the news he could finally say the alphabet from A to K and count from 1 to 4.

No, this is trigger-happy land. Besides the abundant empty cartridge waste, the bullet holes mutilating road signs give that away. Apart from a very short period in my early childhood, when I ran around with a warped tennis racket as a weapon in a cowboy and indian fight, I shiver at the thought of guns. Why anyone would want to shoot a hole through anything baffles me period. And to be honest, the intelligence of those who go around disfiguring sign posting has to be seriously questioned. I mean do these guys rock up to the pub in the late afternoon and upon ordering a cool Serena from the tap, start the following conversation:

"Hey Guiseppi, you'll never guess what I just did?" says Pedro with a grin from ear to ear. "In two single shots, I blew the dots away from the "i's" on the new signpost leading to Tagliatelli Creek."
"Wow, Pedro, way to go!"
replies Guiseppi with awe. "Beat me to it. I've been trying that myself for the last year. They've had to replace the sign six times now. Couldn't read it anymore and tourists were complaining." Guiseppi delivers puffed with pride.
"Hey, but Mario has a tale himself you know,"
interjects Luigi. "Go on Mario, tell Pedro; tell Guiseppi."
Well, last week I was near Pioggiola hunting for wild boar. It got a bit
boring so I shot up the road sign instead."
"Yeah" says Luigi, "Should have seen him: nine shots dead bull's eyes through each letter. Like a round from Ak14, it was. Total mastership!"

In contrast to the display of macho carnage, a splash of dainty wild cyclamens lead us very pinkly to Bocca do Sanbastiano [403m]. Cyclists on an organised tour sprinkle their way down the 6.6 kilometres and 343 metres of gain we have just pedalled up. The support-van driver is as impressed with our fully-loaded efforts as Ali is with Louis Henri Capazza and his companion mentioned on the celebratory plaque at the peak. They successfully made the first hot air balloon flight across the Mediterranean in 1899. Leaving from Marseilles and with a little help from the mistral, they arrived at this same point five and a half hours later. It has taken us five and a half days.

The road leads us further towards the flourishing metropolis of Aiacciu [Ajaccio].We outskirt it, though a short stint on a couple of fast lane highways with very little shoulder is necessary. Over the last few days lots of praying mantis, in their namesake's position, have been testing fate by sitting in the middle of the road. Yes praying, is what they seem to be doing and on the smaller roads, it isn't such a problem, but here on a dual lane highway it is pushing your luck a little too far. What they are doing intrigues me enough to look up on internet to determine if they have some sort of quirky death ritual. The only queer little habit I could find - and it is still a mind-blower - is that of sexual cannibalism. Apparently for either nutrition purposes or fertilisation benefits, the female likes to bite the male's head off during mating. Whatever the reason, I will never be able to look at a praying mantis in the same way again.

The yuppie town of Porticcio with its fragrance blend of bbq fish and designer perfume is not the type of place Ali and I would normally hang out in, but we are thankful for the large supermarket. The coast leads us to a more down-to-earth beach at Molini and a few kilometres on in the Port of Chivari, cows have taken to the golden sands like they normally take to pasture. While they might think it is normal here, I find it a strange sight to see them on a the shoreline.

Up until now the cycling in Corsica has been easy; simple 3-4% gradient averages. While the road condition is far from perfect, the stretch from Calvi to Piana is stunning coastline and more than enough reason to add Corsica on the next place to tour list. From Chivari onwards the pedalling gets a little more intense. We leave the cows behind to zigzag up 100 metres of altitude in just over a kilometre. Serious recovery is done on the way down again towards Portigliolo. Another energy zapping 150 metres of gain in less than 1.5 kilometres follows and has me thinking seriously about whether I enjoy cycle touring or not. We continue even higher, as if I haven't suffered enough. Some sections are so steep (16%), I am off the bike and pushing and ready to phone in the helicopter for an air rescue.

The rest of the day is filled with plenty more strenuous undulations, though I can sit in the saddle for most of them. We reach Acqua-Doria and pedal up to the turn-off to Cala di Cigliu [307m]. Another 14 kilometres and 162 alit-metres of roller coasting see us in Serr di Ferro, where yet again the campground is closed for the season. Just down the road in Porto Pollo (79km; 1118m), the municipal camping area is open for two more nights.

Set right next to the ocean, under giant gums and pines, it is a beautiful spot to rest the rather overworked thighs for two nights. Besides, a day for washing and bike repairs is in order, before we cross over to Sardinia. If Corsica is anything to go by, we are guessing that camping facilities this time of year will also be closed. While we don't mind wild camping, we hope there are more opportunities to steal ourselves away from the main road. On Corsica's west coast, it has been really difficult.

The power of Ali
With our tent packed away and the bikes almost fully loaded, the campground owner comes up and in a prattle of French wanting to check that we are leaving and not arriving. It is foreign language conversations like these that confuse the hell out of me. My little bit of Spanish had actually served me well; I I had understood everything, but it was my language logic that was not at ease. Why would anyone ask such a question? Firstly, we had camped in this spot for two nights running and secondly, what does she think we are doing at 8.30am in the morning? Certainly not arriving!

Ali's optimism statements have been just as outlandish as usual, but more recently and very unfortunately, the complete opposite has occurred. It has been too frequent and so extreme, I can only boil it down to divine intervention. Two days ago, just after our encounter with cows on the beach, he brilliantly remarked that it is not as hilly as it has been. What followed was a 100 metre gain over 1 kilometre and the rest of the day was spent tackling some of the steepest gradients in months. This is just one example.

So when he told me yesterday that we are in for a flat ride, with tailwind and sunny skies, I became a little concerned. Really, this is the part of the story where that big "ERRR" hooter should sound: you know the ones like they have in silly game shows. Unfortunately our quest is not a game show, it's reality. And while today's ride starts off with five kilometres on the flat it is followed by an overflow of hills, head and side wind and even the spattering of rain from what is mostly an overcast day. I'm not sure where he gets his power from, but I wish he'd stop with the statements.

There is some stunning landscape to balance off the hard work. Magnificent views along rocky coastline with strange soft curvy rocks that are very, very large. Something must have happened over many years for these formations to occur, but I'm afraid my geology knowledge is about as good as my calculus.

After all the ups and downs, we finally finish on a super downhill into Bonifacio (82km; 1065m) and pull into the first campground we see. I trundle off to the supermarket, but follow signs instead of instinct, which is to my detriment. I return after about an hour of walking and then Ali ventures into town to find out what time the ferry leaves for Sardinia. For some strange reason, they don't know at Camping L'Araguina. He spies a supermarket just a few minutes from the tent!

The camp spot is about as good as the staff's tourism knowledge and for €15.90, two people get an olive-pit patch - remember we are sleeping on the ground here; cold water to wash your dishes in; crumby showers; and those unhygienic French squat toilets - where the water runs all over your feet when you flush. To top it all off, the place is teaming with cats, who piss all over our tent...

torrone nougat in Sardinia

Off the Radar
Bonifacio - Corsica to Tunis - Tunisia
(7 cycle days; 5 rest days; 36 ferry hours; 484km; 6930m)

Bonifacio - Corsica, France to Palau - Sardegna, Italy (37km; 317m)
Palau to Porto San Páolo (62km; 563m)
Porto San Páolo to near Buddusò (63km; 1212m)
near Buddusò to near Fonni (83km; 1125m)
near Fonni to Arbatax (72km; 781m)
Arbatax to near Orosei (78km; 1298m)
near Orosei to Porto San Páolo (88km; 569m)
Porto San Páolo to Olbia (19km; 88m)
Olbia - Sardinia to Civitavecchia - Italy to Tunis - Tunisis via Palermo (ferry)
La Goulette -Tunisia to Tunis (12km; 18m)

Off the radar
The Saremar Ferry leaves at 9.30am and 5.00pm at this late period of the season and it costs 8 euros per person; 2 euros for each of the bikes; and - wait for it - nearly 100% tax at (8 euros). Me lying on the floor during the quick 50 minute ride has nothing to do with the price though.

After any sea adventure, I just love touching good old Mother Earth with my feet and this time they land on Italian soil. There are a few rattly cobble climbs up into the town centre of San Teresa di Galura, where a procession of some religious degree is making its way through to the plaza. A few people are dressed up in very old - and rather spooky - costumes, but the most bizarre sight is the magnitude of the oxen. They are the size of small elephants. The Tourist Bureau surprises us as well with its beautifully bound Cycling Guide to Sardinia [pdf] from Sardegna Turismo [also in Italian and German].

Bundled up with information about cycling in Sardinia, we head off out of town to the nearest campground confirmed as open. It is not and the guy tries to extort 10 euros per person out of us for a rather uninspiring plot next to his workplace. Ali won't have anything to do with the price. We trundle back into town to find the only internet available - at the sports bar - so we can transfer some money into our bank account and grimace at the 60 odd emails awaiting our attention before we ride out again via an ATM and off the radar. Or at least we think.

The next biggest town is Palau (37km; 317m), an hour and a half ride south east. Getting there is easy compared to Corsica since the landscape is a little flatter, but our newly acquired cycling guide has hinted to us that this won't always be the case. The island has a couple of decent climbs ahead.

The tourist information is shut for siesta, but we manage to find our way to a campground brimming with people. We get quite excited about the wifi zone signs as we cycle towards the beach, but after setting up camp and logging in we discover that it costs a crazy €6 per hour, though if you sign up for a week only €12. Does make you wonder why anyone would sign up for just an hour? But the catch is this: we need a mobile phone to receive the sms with the password. It's just never gonna work for us: we are not literally, but in principle too far off the radar.

Internet connections aside, Camping Baia Saraceno has some perfect terraced pitches and at €16 it is comparatively good value. Unfortunately, the camp-fun is dampened in the evening by an attack from annoying beetles. They don't sting, nor are they deadly; just awfully creepy with their dive bombing action towards our headlights.

Not quite as we planned
You know sometimes things just don't go as you plan them. The blustery gale we awake to is not a great problem, though it slows us down a bit when we hit it head- or side-on. Nonetheless, well before mid afternoon we pass Olbia, a rather unsightly industrial town with unpainted apartment blocks; graffiti walls; and known for having one of the island's main ferry ports. We are in fact at our destination, Porto San Páolo (62km; 563m) around 2pm, and it is a little difficult deciding whether to accept the almost €20 per night campsite fee or move on and camp wild.

We choose for comfort and the initial "why the f*&k should a campground be so expensive" disappointment wanes when we see we have toilet paper, clean amenities, hot water all round and the owners are a couple of sweet-peas who literally want to, and do, take over our route planning. They also bring down the internet price by 300% and give us electricity inclusive of the site cost.

Normally we, or should I say Ali, researches the initial itinerary by himself, but we have no idea when the ferries are leaving from Cagliari to Palermo, Sicily. So nothing has been organised. And it's a good thing we decided to stop here and ask, because after the reception office was turned upside down searching for numbers, followed by a few telephone calls later, it becomes apparent that the ferries to Sicily are fully booked for the next three weeks. Who would have thought at this time of year? The only other sensible option is to ferry from Olbia to Civitavecchia (the port of Rome) and onto Tunisia via Palermo in one swoop. The idea takes a bit of getting used to. I had my heart set on cycling around Sicily.

The following day via telephone, via internet, with credit cards and money transfers from savings accounts to bank accounts, it is finally booked. It is a long and tedious process. We might be in the 21st century, but we are also on Italy's western most island and things move a little differently here. Nonetheless and contrary to our original plans, the outcome is: we will be in North Africa in two weeks time.

Time to get cycle touring around Sardinia.

Corsica and Sardinia both have steep camping fees. Most official campgrounds charge between €16 and €20 for a tent and two people. On our route however, we have come across more wild camping opportunities in Sardinia. There are a few other differences between cycling here and cycling in Corsica too. Sardinia's little villages tend to have a choice of shopping facilities and there is likely to be at least one open on a Sunday. The amount of rubbish here is another observation. It is truly beyond words and extending past the usual baby nappies; plastic and glass to refrigerators, car batteries and unwanted building supplies. It spoils a beautiful island.

Before we set off to explore, we spread the message around that we need to find accommodation for the night of the 30th, when we arrive late by ferry in Tunis. Hopefully the inbox will have a solution when we return.

cork forest in Sardinia, Italy

Barking up the wrong tree
Before today, I thought cork was only produced in Portugal and a few areas of Spain. I also had a long discussion with someone just recently over the reason behind the usage of plastic corks and screw caps in the wine industry. Surely it was because the world's supply of cork was drying up?

Corsica has a few cork acorns, but I have never seen so many fields of these snaky cushion-branched trees in my life, as here on Sardinia. So, it got me wondering, during the clamber up and down to get to Buddusò (63km; 1212m) - while staring at nothing but cork - that possibly the industry is not so dead after all. Has anyone ever heard of Italian cork? We end up that evening in - you guessed it - a cork oak forest with cows wandering past our tent, so there was no internet to solve the mystery.

I did however, not forget to check when I could and I found out that I was wrong on all two accounts. You can add France, Italy, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria to the cork growing regions of the world and blow me down: there is no shortage of cork. Plastic and screw caps are just cheaper. So basically in all aspects of cork production, I was barking up the wrong tree.

From the beauty to the beast
You can't imagine the beauty of this morning's ride. Everything is perfect: cool air, sun shining and some of the best cycle touring roads I have ever been on. Climbing is a gratifying 3-4% and these easy inclines curl up in fantastic swirls like the branches of the surrounding cork trees. We plummet back down to Bitti - not as in itsy, since the town is quite substantial. Another ascent takes us on into the undulations and a number of wild camping possibilities. I'm feeling great.

Quite suddenly though, I notice that the cork trees have become gums, we are hitting the outskirts of Nuoro, which is more akin to a giant rubbish dump and there's a tunnel up ahead. Tunnels scare the begeebers out of me and coupled with some jerk driving antics, my mood swings from feeling really good to feeling really depressed. I hate arrogant drivers, I hate rubbish and I hate tunnels and I get all three at once.

Somehow, we have ended up on a busy highway and the immediate plan is to get off as soon as possible. The turn-off takes forever to come into sight and when we finally move back into farmland it is apparent that wild camping will be difficult. We ask at one farm: the answer is no. We keep climbing. We get abused by a couple of motorists. We keep pedalling up, knowing that soon the town will be in sight. It is getting dark and we pull off near Fonni (83km; 1125m) into the only field that has no barbed wire fencing. Lifting the bikes down over the rock piles near the road is still a hassle, but soon enough we are sitting in a chestnut garden, waiting for the farmer, who has just appeared, to go. In the dusk, he walks past our tent twice and either, doesn't bother with us or completely misses it altogether - in which case, confirming all we have preciously said about the brilliant camouflage feature of our Helsport tent.

frescos in Sardinia, Italy

Alone with the cows
We are up before the sun, mind you the full moon makes the entire packing-up in the dark pretty bright. Hitting the road at first light, we climb slowly up into Fonni, another compact Sardinian city with its streets curving past somber cement buildings. The town, like many others on the island, has brightened its grey walls up with plenty of elaborate fresco artwork. At the racetrack outside of town, we stop for breakfast and hot coffee.

Instead of venturing through a major tunnel on the main highway, we will journey up and over a 1246 metre pass. The other side of Fonni offers a couple of nicer opportunities for stealth camping, though not perfect. The best spots come 25 kilometres after the town, where we and the cows have the whole road to ourselves. Since the construction of the double-lane highway, this pathway has been forgotten. I wouldn't be surprised if they built the new road because the cows had taken over this one. Plummeting down the other side of the pass, we are dodging not only them, but their cowpats mixed in with plenty of fallen rock.

Like on Corsica, shooting seems to be a favourite pastime here too. We spy men in army fatigues parading around importantly with their shotguns and vests filled with enough ammunition to wipe out all of Bambi's relatives. Seems that Sunday is army gear day in these mountain parts or maybe it is just that the Italian militia has posted a platoon on a secret mission.

If you can plan your trip as such, then one of the best camping spots we have seen in a long time comes 32 kilometres from Fonni. We peer down from the stone bridge over the river with amazement at how the the landscape has changed all of a sudden. Grassy plains; running fresh water with sandy shores. However tempting, we move on up the short climb bringing us to the cliff top. Red rock and rugged stone surround us. Kilometres of plummeting cliff face lead directly to the hydro-plant at the bottom. We glide all the way down on a beautiful stretch of road. Another amazing cycle.

The 900 metre downhill sail is pretty much smooth all the way to the coast. Prickly pear cacti in full fruit line the road until we near Tortolì, where the rubbish takes over the same visual task. All the way to and through Arbatax (72km; 781m), we pass litter. Tonnes of it.

Initially, Trelis Campground is nothing special to look at as we go in search of a terrace spot overlooking the ocean. But when I take a trip to the shower and toilet, I can't believe my eyes. Though I wouldn't do this of my own accord, should someone offer me a decent amount of money, I would dare to lick the bathroom floor. Seriously, it was that clean. Sparkling new amenities; private cubicles with toilet, bidet, washbasin and shower. Totally amazing for a campsite and such a treat that I made certain I got quality time under the hot water after three riding days and no shower.

Today's gonna be a good day?
With everything but the tent packed, the rain descends: my heart sinks with this disappointing start to the day. We know the road ahead is only going up. We had seen it from the mountainside yesterday. Out we trudge, past all the rubbish and onto the highway leading to Lotzorai. From here the climbing starts on an immaculate road surface which winds itself towards the town of Baunei [680m] set in the cliff face. This is our first milestone of the day; 20 kilometres into the ride. A town where women still dress in long pleated petticoat skirts with woolen socks pulled up over their knees; their heads covered in black scarves. Many of the small villages in Sardinia are this old fashioned. If it weren't for Madonna's electro style American Life on my mp3, I might have thought I was in another era.

Our map indicates that the pass is at 906 metres above sea level, which has us a bit baffled as to what the terrain will be like from here on in. We can't see past the small ridge in the mountain up ahead, which is too close to be the end of the climbing. In actual fact, we are only halfway.

The road doesn't only go up: it sort of coils its way up and down and around a massive mountain range of barren orange and grey rock and onto a plateau of grassy plains with the usual farmland grazers and a few wild horses. It then tunnels along a cliff face to pop us out for more uphill pedalling to Genna Cruxi [906m], the pass. The cycling is magnificent, no other word for it. But tiredness has set in and the realisation that our map is wrong and the pass is actually another 100 metres up and a few kilometres further on, is not so enchanting. It doesn't take long to reach Genna Silana [1017m] and from here on in, it is a downhill mountain zigzag most of the way to Dorgali. At 5pm it is also freezing cold.

Our thoughts on wild camping are totally dashed when everything around is fenced off or turned into a marsh from the recent rains. A little Agriturismo Camping sign comes into view near Orosei (78km; 1298m) and we follow it eagerly. It is nice, but gone are the days when camping at the farm was cheap. Ten euros per person gets us good clean facilities on uneven ground.

Tavolara Island

Back again
Technically, it should be an easy enough ride back to Tavolara Camping, ending our little circuit cycle in Sardinia. Mostly it is rolling coastal road to La Caletta. The wind is a little strong, but the black clouds looming over the mountain near Spaggia Oliviri are not at all welcome. Our road is closed and the prospect of arterial road cycling with a 1½ kilometre tunnel does not enthrall me either. I figure that locals must be able to get through somehow to farms and houses, so I put my foot down to even attempting the highway option. We take the rickety dirt track and find ourselves back on route after a few kilometres detour and a period of sheltering under a bridge to let a storm pass over. The sun reappears as if nothing has happened and everything is rosy again: right up until 13 kilometres before our destination.

Another storm cloud that has been lingering out at sea is picking up ferocity and moving towards dry land fast. We manage to avoid most of it, though it involves cycling like a madman to reach the campground in time. We are waved on in like old friends at Porto San Páolo (88km; 569m).

Our stay at Tavolara Camping involves a couple of days of e-mailing and last minute planning for the trip to Tunisia. The ride to meet the boat in Olbia (19km; 88m) means pedalling back past the giant limestone rock resembling a dinosaur's back; out along the same highway: all quite familiar. We arrive at 5.00pm and have a picnic dinner outside, which by all the staring, locals are obviously not familiar with. There are a few hours to kill before boarding the SNAV Ferry and after a bit of an argument with an annoying security guard regarding payment for the bicycles, we are finally allowed on. He was totally incorrect by the way.

Unfortunately, it seems like the whole of Sardinia is migrating to mainland Italy. The boat is packed with families and the only spot left is right underneath the children's television. There is a reason for that. By 11pm, I am wondering why these little girls and boys haven't been dragged off to bed yet; probably because the adults are also glued to the ridiculous talk-show program for kids. One older woman has had enough about a half hour later. Like us, she is trying to sleep and just gets up, walks over and shuts the thing off. And that's the end of that.

While it is not the most pleasant nights sleep, it is some sleep. We arrive at five in the pitch black of early morning, settle into a wooden stool at the terminal - after a few stiff coffees - and wait for our continuation ferry. Our Grandi Navi Velochi ferry leaves at 7pm, so we fill in a bit of the day with cycling around Civitavecchia and doing something we love very much: ordering pizza.

view of suburb in outer Tunis

Life at sea
Back at the port, we meet Tille and Ains, a couple that will save our sanity during one very long delayed ferry trip. The details are of little interest to me now, after more than three weeks of waiting in Tunis for our Libyan visa. But to fill you in on just a little bit: we did splurge out this time around and got a cabin, for which we were truly grateful. After the initial "wow-discovery" walk around, the boat novelty wore off pretty much immediately and reality set in: we were going to be on this thing for more than 24 hours. The food and drinks on board were as outrageously priced and of minimal quality as they always are on all ferries; opening hours of services were particularly bleak; and the duty free shop - which normally gives me at least an hour of entertainment - closed its doors because the credit card machine wasn't working. Further to that, the way staff handled the disembarking delay was quite appalling. It was a wonder that the crowds didn't stampede. But like I said, we were kept entertained by our new found friends and time passed by.

Somehow, we manage to be among the first to enter the car deck when we arrive at La Goulette, the port of Tunis. We are on our bikes and at immigration extremely quick. Panic (me) has set in - it started on the boat; we are two hours late and our CouchSurfing hosts are waiting for us. We have no telephone access until we get the stamps in our passports. Luckily, I can set my watch back an hour, which means we are only an hour late instead of two. I feel a little better.

Customs is a formal affair and everything must come off the bicycles and go through the x-ray machine; except the bikes, which does seem pretty weird. Ali rings Nadia & Olivier and they will be waiting for us at the Carrefour - yes they have them over here too. We hit the streets of Tunis: it smells and feels so warm. It is always exciting; your first few breaths in a new coountry. But this really does seem so different; probably because it is another continent and our 45th country.

Being the middle of the night, we don't know what to expect, but most of the roads are very well lit. The ride though is much longer than we expected. I am so relieved to arrive at our host's house in Tunis (12km; 18m). Nadia and Olivier are not only relaxed and easy going, but a wealth of information about their city. So the next day, we are armed with knowledge about the area and finding ourselves a hotel for our long anticipated stay in the capital is pretty easy. As it turns out our stay will be both long and full of anticipation. I write October's journal, after having been in Tunis for 26 days and I am ready; very ready to move on.

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