More Croatia

Yesterday I had my first “off” day of the trip. Croatians aren’t the warmest people. The legs felt sluggish, and I was tired all day. Cloudy damp weather came in, with a headwind, and I couldn’t find a nice lunch spot so I finally skipped it and started looking for a campsite. It took a long time to find one. They burn the fields here for weed and tick control, and all the side roads were recently burned, smelly and dirty, lots of litter. There were plenty of decrepit abandoned houses that Bosnians had left after the war, all dirty and depressing. I finally found a cemetery at the end of a long dirt road way out in the country, kind of unkept but with recent graves, and made my camp there. It was foggy and dismal.

In the morning it wasn’t far to Glina, which was hard hit in the war, terribly run down and with half the residents it had before the war. I found a bakery and was eating rolls in front, inches from the traffic in the dusty street.

Then along came Petar. In his fifties with a gold tooth and a quick smile, his only English was, “Oh my god!”. He pantomimed me over to his shoe repair shop, then to a cafe to meet up with Nedeljko, his English-speaking friend. Petar also drives a city bus in Zagreb (and by Jesus he resembles my friend Reed who drives a city bus, too), and Nedeljko repairs appliances. They wanted the whole story, which required more time, so lunch was planned. First a quick tour of Petar’s “farm”, an in-town barn and pasture hidden behind a big door between two buildings. Goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, and a horse in a chaotic barnyard scene. Then to Nedeljko’s for wi-fi (no luck fixing gmail), then to Petar’s house for lunch. Big fried fish, a dish with carrots, onions, cauliflower and something else, delicious, and good bread, in a kitchen with a wood stove and a lot of incredible plants. Nedeljko had stayed home, so a neighborhood boy of twelve was called in to interpret. Schnapps? Why not. It was home made, distilled from plums. It seems everywhere I go there are home made alcoholic beverages. They wanted me to stay the night but I had only gone 15 kilometers, and it was only 2:00PM.

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Petar

Soon I was on the road with both men. Petar left us at his brother’s house, 6 kilometers from town; Nedeljko rode with me 30 kilometers to the top of a mountain pass.

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Nedeljko

Here we sat as I learned more about the war. Every generation for centuries there has been war, their curse Nedeljko said. He pointed out a village on the mountainside that was empty, no inhabitants. Bosnians had lived there when this was all Yugoslavia; they left for Bosnia-Herzgovenia, an hour drive away, after the war. We talked. He is a bicycle man with a nice vintage Italian road bike and a nice vintage American mountain bike. He’s the first Jehova’s Witness I ever met who didn’t talk about it. We shared a lot of good conversation at the top of that pass, sat silently for a while listening to the wind, then parted.

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Then a long downhill past more abandoned homes, old ladies hoeing in fields, men in tractors, and many old men sitting in the sun in door yards, brought me to Dvor, on the Bosnia-Herzgovenia border at dusk. Snow was forecast (I couldn’t believe it but we’ll see). I found a room in an off-season hunting lodge run by the Butic family.

22-year old Matea speaks the best English I’ve heard in Croatia so far; she learned it by watching movies when she couldn’t get into the English class at school. She’s a sweetheart, and we are already friends on Facebook. Gordana and Josip are celebrating their 37-year anniversary. A great country meal of chicken, rice, and home-made bread was accompanied by home-made schnapps. Again!

Josip grows corn to feed to wild game animals on the mountain behind the farm. Matea studies wildlife management and hunting at college. That’s right, hunting. Boar and deer hides, mounted antlers and game birds decorate the place. An hour after dinner I was invited down to the kitchen for crêpes with home-made jam. I’ve been promised home-made sausage for breakfast.

Looks like I found the right people in Croatia after all. I’ll be leaving this country tomorrow morning with a smile on my face.

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Croatia So Far

Crossing the border the second time was smooth as silk. Immigration could have given me trouble on the Slovenian side for my crazy stamps from the day before, but they just asked where I was going ans stamped me OUT. Customs just waved me by. Across the same river, the Croatian immigration lady just asked where I was going. When I said, “Hong Kong.”, she just lowered her glasses and said, “That’s heavy.” the Croation customs man just chatted a little and didn’t even ask if I had anything to declare. I’ve had more trouble going from Vermont to Canada.

Before leaving Slovenia I stocked up at my favorite Slovenian supermarket chain, Spar. Two reasons: I didn’t know if I could change money easily, and I had been warned that good Croatian supermarkets were rare. As it turns out, changing money here is easier than in the EU: every bank gives the official rate, no fee, and they are open until 7:00PM.

If Slovenia was like New England, Croatia is like Appalachia. Beautiful mountains and farmland, but decades of poverty and strife show in the run-down farms and homes (not all of them), the rusty cars and ancient tractors, and neglected concrete apartment buildings in the one city I have visited so far, Karlovac. The roads are poor and there are no picnic tables. I love picnic tables. Wi-fi seems easy to find so far, but G-mail has decided that checking my mail from Croatia is suspicious activity, and their verification process involves text messages. Anybody know how to contact Google?

At lunch I found an empty rod & gun club with tables under a pavilion (of sorts), a big stone pig-roasting setup, and a deer stand on a tower, all in a nice grove of trees. They had a crucifix and rosary hanging, and bare-breasted girly photos as well. I found a 50-Kuna bill blowing in the breeze there, worth about $14. It was looking like rain, and this would have been a good place to camp, under the pavilion, but it was early so I pressed on.

I am in Karlovac now, in a room in a private home, $12. A hotel room is $25 to $100, a beer in a downtown bar $1. There are lots of bars, almost all with outdoor seating. The people are friendly. A fellow at the cafe, 30 years old, works in a brewery full time for about $550 per month, which he says is average for non-professionals, truck drivers, store clerks and the like. Rent is cheap, $200 or so unless it’s a nice place. Few people under 30 have cars. German, Italian and Austrian tourists bring a little more prosperity to town from April to October.

I’m still deciding about a route. I can reach Turkey via Bulgaria, a non-Shengen country. It seems slow going in Eastern Europe but I’m gaining on my planned schedule anyway. And I’m enjoying every day. I’ll put off deciding for a while, and see what develops.

Slovenia II

I left Simon and Stane and headed east toward Croatia. The main road was nice enough, and soon I was on smaller roads as I neared the border. You know that old saying, “I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.”? I couldn’t stop smiling. It’s just so beautiful here I can’t describe it, and my camera doesn’t capture it. Like the Maine woods only drier, either pastoral or wooded, post-card villages and clean, quiet towns. People out in their gardens wave as I glide by, truckers honk and give thumbs up, even the road crews wave their hard hats and shout, “Dobra dan!”. Little tweety-birds flit along next to me for a few seconds and chirp cheerful chirps. A shepherd lifts his crook and nods; cops salute and smile. Have I died and gone to heaven? To top it off there are sunny skies, it’s warm in the sun and cool in the shade, there are patches of snow on the hillsides, and a slight breeze. I napped at a picnic area after lunch, since I was up late talking with Simon.

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Running low on food and stove fuel, I was considering a restaurant, but I found a nice grocery store.

Alcohol for my stove is hard to find sometimes. Big city hardware stores or paint stores have denatured alcohol, a cleaning solvent and paint thinner. Denatured alcohol is ethanol and/or methanol with poisonous additives, often unspecified, to prevent use as an intoxicating beverage. I can also use the gasoline antifreeze additive sold in gas stations (HEET in the USA), but it is rare here (and I’d rather not because of toxic fumes). Rubbing alcohol from the drug store burns cool and leaves soot. But…

They sell liquor in grocery stores here. Vodka works poorly and leaves soot. Moonshine works great—the only thing better is laboratory-grade alcohol (100% ethanol), unavailable to civilians. Liquor stores sometimes have clear potable alcohol, 96% ethanol, just like moonshine (Everclear and Alcool are American brands). So I got some of that with my groceries. It’s expensive: since its potable and taxed, it is more than twice the price of denatured alcohol, but still, by my calculations, about ten cents to cook a meal.

So, as you have probably already guessed, I have cooked my dinner and I am enjoying a cocktail of pure alcohol, water, a tangerine squeezed in, and a pinch of salt. It’s potable.

Late afternoon, early for camping now that Daylight Saivngs time has ended here, I spied an irresistible woods road, grassy and pine-needled and bordered with wild flowers and pine cones. There were many such roads today, but this one just made me turn. A quarter-mile down, in a clearing surrounded by giant Norway Spruce and White Pines, were two hunter’s stands, little open-sided shelters up on small towers, twenty feet above the ground. Nearby was a bear-bait setup. There are brown bears here, not grizzlies but the size of the black bears in the eastern US. I’ve seen a few signs with bears on them, a few hides hanging on barns, and Simon told me about them last night. The hunting season is in the fall, and like deer season in New England, it contributes to the economy. Austrians and Germans, not far away, and other European hunters come for hunting this bear.

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If bear baiting and hunting from stands makes you uneasy, let me tell you that it is just how it is done, for centuries now, around the world, including America, Europe, Russia, even Japan. The bleeding-heart liberals put a stop to it in Vermont and a few other states back in the seventies, and England outlawed it, in typical British fashion, a decade after the last bear in England was taken.

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I’m cozy up here at sunset in my bear stand. It’s silent except for birds. An owl hoots in the distance, and earlier a hummingbird approached, but didn’t touch, my squeezed-out tangerine skins, arm’s length away. I heard a wild boar, too; I recognize their grunts and barking sound from Spain and Italy. I hope a bear comes…

No bears last night but a beautiful cold, clear starlit night and awesome sunrise. I am still following the route laid out by Dominik four days ago, and it keeps getting better. A two hour stretch of unpaved road was to my liking, and some climbing brought me to a vista that showed mountain after mountain, into Croatia, as far as the eye can see.

I reached the border about 3:00PM. This is where I leave the European Union. My passport didn’t have an entry stamp because of my clumsy departure from the ferry to Holland, but the Slovenian guys were great and accepted my story.

But the Croatian customs lady took the receipt for my bicycle, asked me a bunch of questions, and took my passport and paperwork inside for half an hour. Then she refused to let me in to Croatia. Reason: my bicycle was too expensive. I didn’t understand, but that was the only answer she was willing to give. I think they didn’t believe my bike matched my receipt, and I was trying to fool the tax man somehow. This was a tiny crossing in the boondocks, far from the city, the nearest town of any size miles away.

Was I suspected of wrongdoing? She was not at liberty to say. Can I see your superior? He was standing right behind her and spoke no English. What am I to do? Not my problem. I am reluctant to call any woman a bitch (she might be somebody’s mother); let’s just say she was bitchy.

So I crossed the bridge back to Slovenia.

Problem: once you leave a country that is party to the Shengen agreement (like Slovenia and all the countries I have visited so far), which I just did, you can’t return for six months without a special visa. This time it was a young woman at the Slovenian immigration window. Apply at the Consulate in Ljubljana, 120 kilometers away. But I can’t re-enter. Apply by mail. Where’s the Post Office? Vinica, three kilometers. But I can’t go there. The sun was setting. This woman saw the humor of the situation, however. I told her I was eyeing a nice spot on the bridge for my campsite. This got her laughing. She consulted her colleague, the guy who let me OUT of Slovenia. They decided on a stamp, stamped my passport IN, and waved me through, telling me to try another border crossing 40 kilometers north.

So I’m back in good old Slovenia, camping in the woods.

Now I’m at a great country restaurant, early in the morning, using their wi-fi. Nice folks. Reminds me of the Brunswick Barbecue and Brew, of which I have many fond memories.

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As soon as I find some wi-fi in Croatia, I’ll let you know how I made out at the border.

Slovenia!

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I love Slovenia! It is bicycle paradise to me, hilly and green with smooth roads and little traffic. Mountain passes with impossibly beautiful spruce-rimmed meadows bring me to one idyllic, flat-bottomed valley after another, with tidy villages and towns every few miles. The valleys are surrounded by deep spruce and pine forests with bare, rocky peaks and ridges beyond. It is clean.

An hour from the border I asked to camp in a farmer’s field. As soon as my tent was ready I was offered dinner. Darinka and Darko are retired farmers, now avid gardeners. The soup was a traditional Slovenian recipe, Darinka said; sour kraut and a few white beans in a milky broth with whole cumin, delicious. I was also served a large bowl of raw wild dandelion greens with boiled potatoes; finely chopped salt pork fried in a generous amount of olive oil, poured onto the greens and potatoes, made a rich and tasty dish, with hearty whole-grain bread to wipe the bowl. Darinka and Darko ate theirs out of the same big bowl, lovebirds in their seventies. Apples for dessert. In the morning breakfast, slippers, towels for my shower, and spring water for my bottles were waiting.

Next day was Slovenia’s annual national clean-up day. I thought it was pretty clean already, but groups of people young and old were out rooting cans and bottles, litter and hub caps from the ditches and snow-flattened grass, piling bags by the roadside. There was a celebratory air to the mission. I stopped to talk to several groups and families. Some shouted, “For SLOVENIA!” with proud smiles.

After a windy mountain campsite and a nice ride I stopped at a cafe in Postojna, a quiet town of ten thousand people. I was here to decide. Outside was an intersection. East would lead me, eventually, to Ukraine and Russia, my original plan. South would bring me to Greece and Turkey where, if I can get visas, I can go through “the ‘Stans” (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan), saving a thousand miles and a thousand Siberian mosquito bites. Turkey and the ‘Stans are said to be beautiful, cheap, and friendly (the people, not the government).

Three friendly young men approached, hitting the cafe after running a foot race that morning. One looked, talked and acted so exactly like my dear departed friend Garland English that I had to choke back tears.

They got my story quickly. Excited, they produced a map of Eastern Europe and showed me a back-road route through Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia to Romania that would put off my decision for a week or two. They drew me a map, a crooked line with town names and important landmarks. Dominik gave me the name and address of a friend thirty kilometers away where I could stay for the night.

I’m following that map into ever more beautiful valleys and forests. A thunder shower sent me into a thick spruce woods where I ate peanuts and inspected the spring flowers and mushrooms, dry under the tall trees.

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Dominik’s friend Simon and his dad Stane put me up for two days while I did laundry, ordered some parts for my kit, researched routes, and ate great home made bread with home made butter and preserves, raw milk, garden greens and lots more. I have once again found myself among wonderful people.

These limestone mountains have big caves and lots of history. Simon helped me make sense of recent history, which he and his dad lived through, with maps and pictures on the dining table and much passion in the telling.

Also fascinating to me is the fact that people in this area, Inner Carniola, developed skiing 500 years ago, independently from the Scandinavians. The regional crest features a mustachioed skier with an overcoat and a wide-brimmed Fedora-like hat, scarf streaming behind. My host Stane, long retired, is president of the local tourism association and an amateur historian. He showed me a pair of the old skis, by far the oldest I have ever held.

After lunch Stane brought me hiking. His English came back to him in little bits as he showed me the back country. Here, the back country is full of history. Old castle ruins from the 1400s, when the Turks briefly occupied the area; a Catholic church on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere, still used twice a year; a village of eight houses with only tiny dirt road access and a spring-fed fountain from the middle ages—in fact, if it weren’t for the electric wires and poles, the village would look the same as it did back then. A church in one village—this is all on the same hike, now—was bombed by the Italian Fascists in the war, and was rebuilt, to show those bastards they couldn’t win. But on the inside it was left unfinished, in remembrance of those who died there. Stane knew natural history, too, showing me spring flowers, black squirrels, wild plum trees, a river that disappeared into the ground, and what he regarded as the finest woods in the country. I’m a lucky guy to spend an afternoon in the hills with him.

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At dinner we were joined by Stane’s other son, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren. I’m afraid I cranked the kids up before bedtime with mandolin lessons and horseplay. More great, delicious, home grown food, too. Simple ingredients made with love; eggs the kids gathered, wild greens, fried potatoes, and the next-door neighbor’s home made wine.

I’ll leave here the morning, into the hinterlands. (Love that word!) Eastern Croatia and Serbia are said to be even less developed. I’ll keep you posted.

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Italy, All in One Go

First let me apologize for the delay and for the length of this installment. I thought I would put Italy all on one post, but I see now that it became a longer trip, and a longer post, than I had imagined. You can look forward to shorter, more frequent posts in the future.

I arrived in Civitavecchia, Italy, at 10:00PM by ferry from Barcelona. By 11:00 I was sleeping in an empty, off-season food concession area, part of boat club and rental place, fifteen feet from the remarkably clean and clear waves of the Mediterranean Sea.

Next day, I was not impressed. The roads were in no better repair than New York State’s roads; glass and litter was worse. Narrow streets and highways, no shoulders for miles, traffic full of aggressive drivers in all kinds of rigs, from small to tiny. At least the drivers were competent, and 99% were courteous. I got along all right, having grown up on a bike in similar conditions, but it was no picnic. Navigation was easy, however; in this area, all roads lead to Rome.

But that road has few gaps in the fence. Side roads are residential cul-de-sacs; back roads are scarce and don’t connect easily in the hilly terrain. Many roads were simply private. I took main routes because the back way was more than twice as long.

The main route brought me to Rome in one long day. I slept on a park bench across from a court house. Up early, I toured Rome like a tourist, saw as many monuments to antiquity as I could, and some side streets and neighborhoods in between. I could have, perhaps I should have, spent more time, learned more history. But I was feeling antsy, eager to push onward, and staying meant spending money.

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I’ve been getting a new phone number and data package in each new country. Tired of the time spent at cell phone stores and the expense, I skipped it in Italy. So, no detailed maps and routes, no e-mail or blog posts until I find wi-fi, which is scarce here. My google map covers the whole country, and it takes half a day of pedaling to make the little dot move.

As night came in Rome, I went north, and lucked out in a private, magnolia-surrounded parking lot behind a for-sale warehouse at the edge of the city. Protected from the wind, I slept on a thick mattress of leaves.

Northward to Viterbo was into a headwind on a nightmarish narrow, busy highway. Here, sixty miles from Rome, the countryside began to appear in patches, towns no longer overlapping. The wind picked up, blowing like crazy. I found an off-season campground with cabins. Nobody around, so I set up in one and cooked my dinner, very happy to be inside as the wind shook the little room. Later I saw lights at the main house, went over and surprised the hell out of them. I paid €10 and received a warm welcome, a pillow, and an electric heater.

After another day of headwinds and a farm road campsite protected from the wind by a small hill, I met Chris and Peter, an unlikely pair. Chris is 22, from Florida, and on his first bike trip ever, a week-long ride from Rome to Siena and back. Peter is a tall Dutch cyclist, 46, on his fourth month of touring Italy. Chris is the most remarkable young man. Equipped for hotel and restaurant travel, we talked him into camping with us at an abandoned farm house, using an old brick barn for a windbreak. Suddenly I’m cooking for three after a long stretch of solitary travel. I happened to have a bottle of wine and some good fixings.

Chris was home-schooled and raised vegan, is a pianist, botanist, and origami artist, among other things. Good communicator. Peter escaped from the office some time ago and travels a lot now, camping and staying at churches. We made it to Siena next day at noon. Pizza and wine on the plaza, lots of happy people, a perfectly charming city, one of Europe’s oldest. We split a room in a 500 year old hotel, marble and brass and wi-fi.

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At noon next day Peter and I said goodbye to Chris and enjoyed Siena a bit more before heading north toward Florence. We travelled, camped and ate together for three more days, sharing cooking and bottles of wine. I enjoy traveling solo, but I enjoyed traveling with Peter, too. Good conversation and similar tastes in campsites were two reasons. I learned a lot from him. For instance, he had been staying in churches and monasteries along the Via Francigena, a Medieval pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome. The tradition continues today: if you fit the description “pilgrim” (that is, if you are on a moral quest and self-powered), a room and a meal are provided for free. Mass is at 7:00. Other similar routes stretch to Jerusalem.

Florence rocked my world. Like a beautiful home filled with the finest artwork but lived in, comfortable, welcoming. I tried to busk but with no permit I was politely stopped by friendly policemen and policewomen in the dandiest uniforms ever: navy blue tailored-looking outfits with white pith helmets and white leather belts, sashes, holsters and spats, and cool white leather belt-bags to hold their white leather gloves. Such a pleasure to be busted by you, officer!

Leather is a local specialty. In one area dense with shops I discovered that many have back rooms where custom clothing, bags, shoes and luggage can be crafted in a day or two, cheaply. I was tempted by one salesman’s offer to copy my bicycle windbreaker in light leather for €200. He showed me the back room with men old and young busily sewing, hundreds of hides hanging, and big maple cutting tables, all in a very old building on a very, very old street.

From Florence to Bologna we crossed the Apennine Mountains, three days of fine weather and glorious bicycling. I have little to compare it to; higher than the Adirondaks, not as high as the Rockies, populated with towns and villages, sheep and cows, memorable switchback climbs and descents. We camped at an old ruin, and at the top of a pass (990 meters, about 3250 feet) between patches of snow.

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Up and down, several mountain passes, incredible vistas, cold spring water, hilltop monasteries and WWII history, then a crazy hours-long downhill into Bologna, where the terrain abruptly turned dead flat.

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Bologna was bigger, busier, funkier than Florence. Peter and I searched for wi-fi, finally finding some in a library. Good pizza and local beer, a university feel (there are several), huge plazas, towers, parks and architecture. Here Peter headed north toward Austria and I went east toward Venice.

Leaving a big Italian city like Bologna with the sun low in the sky is chancy. How far to a countryside campsite? How long until dark? Minutes before sunset I took a side road and two kilometers later spied an old farm with chickens and geese and Guinea hens, and in the dooryard a very old woman standing, smoking. Camp? Sleep? Tent? She smiled and waved her cigarette; anywhere. By the time she was finished closing the window shutters and the henhouse door, I was set up and cooking dinner: millet with carrots and onions and cheese; chocolate and clementines for dessert.

In the morning I found the farmer feeding and watering chickens and gathering eggs. He looked like Burl Ives, round and goateed with a twinkle in his eye. I pitched in, farm chores our common language. He spied my mandolin and said, “Violina!” with a thumb to his chest. Soon we were in his kitchen (remodeled in 1890, by the looks), playing classical and ragtime tunes with huge laughter. “Vino?” he said. Why not? It was fine: home-made from home-grown grapes.

Between tunes and toasts to music, with great difficulty and effort and sign language and writing down words and dates, I got Claudio’s story. Born in that very farmhouse in 1942, he pursued the violin against his father’s wishes but with his mother’s quiet approval. He studied violin in Bologna (his diploma, in Latin, taken down from the wall for me to inspect); achieved a position in the symphony orchestra in Florence, had students and a dance band gig (he played a recording of the band’s lively music). He returned to the farm to help out when his father got sick; when his father died, he stayed. The old woman I saw was his mother. His wife was dead, his sons gone. Beautiful photos of them were on display, at arm’s reach. When an egg customer came, I took the opportunity to pack my mandolin away. I was presented with two liters of wine and a genuine bear hug. Good man, Claudio.

I spent one night at a small private airfield, about the size of the one in Middlebury, Vermont, a quiet and pleasant spot. No permission, but friendly waves from the aviators and mechanics as they left at dusk.

Next night was the lousiest campsite ever: among thorny brambles by a noisy railroad track, lights shining from back yards, dogs barking, geese honking. I was in the country now, but everything was plowed and planted to the edge of the roadside and irrigation canal, or fenced in and gated off. A damp breeze covered everything with dew, inside the tent as well as out. I woke early and packed up wet. Flat, straight, busy roads brought me closer to Venice. I set up at lunchtime to dry my tent and sleeping bag, then got caught in a shower. I packed up wetter than before.

Pedaling onward in a light rain and the spray from tractor-trailers, I felt tired and got to thinking: I haven’t taken a day off since Girondella, Spain, some fifteen days ago. Lightning in the distance encouraged me to consider a room for a night or two. The first two I found were on the highway and too expensive: €40 or €45 per night. Then I caught a glimpse of a sign, “Ostello”. Ten minutes down a small paved lane I found a neglected old hostel where I could stay two nights for €34. Thunder in the distance made the decision even easier.

I was the only regular guest: most of the rooms were being used to house refugees from Libya. Twenty-five men, most from sub-Saharan Africa and a few from Bangladesh and Singapore, had gone to Libya to work, lived lives there, and had escaped the violence there last year in fishing boats, with harrowing tales to tell, friends killed and bullets dodged. None had passports. Italy gave them a document to travel locally, food and shelter, and €75 a month. There are 40,000 more just like them in Italy today.

These are not illiterate fruit pickers and ditch diggers, either. Joshua, from Ghana, was a dental technician; Kitia from Mali had a landscaping business with employees; Lucky from Nigeria was a professional soccer player. They’ve been here nearly a year, and they all desperately want to work somewhere, anywhere, at anything. But unemployment is high in Italy, they have no working papers, and the local men hate them.

Except for the proprietor of this hostel, an overworked 35-or-so Italian who prepares two meals a day for the men and seems to love them. He insisted I eat with them, on the house (that is, on Italy!) The guys all wanted to know about America, all wanted to go there. A few spoke English. Some I never met, because they rarely leave their rooms, depressed. They have two cell phones among them and no computer, and no idea what will come next, or when.

So I settled in to my big room with four bunks, spread my stuff out to dry, washed the woolens, and wrote some of this post from notes I keep in my calendar. Next day I brought my bike into the sunny yard to clean it, and soon had several helpers and many questions about America. How do I get to America? How much is a plane ticket? Is there work? Obama made them joyful, and they quoted Martin Luther King. They all knew that if they could get to America and find work, everything would be OK. A local college kid came by every day for an hour of Italian language lessons, but they all wanted English. They kept themselves and their clothes neat and clean, even dapper, but the grounds were a mess with junk bicycles, discarded stuff and trash. When the proprietor arrived with groceries he had more helpers than bags. Two guys held my bike upright for an hour while I cleaned it.

Before i leftI gave Lucky my extra smart phone, the one I got in London from the family I stayed with after my accident. With the hostel wi-fi, they can access the Internet, have-mail, and start working on getting a passport. I wished I could do more, and I will if any of them ever make it to America. Goodbyes were not easy.

A day’s ride brought me to Venice. We’ve all seen pictures, but I was unprepared. The beauty, the architecture and statues and decoration, the limestone and granite bridges, the canals and boats: I was overwhelmed. Once you cross the bridge, you park (at some expense). Arched bridges with steps made even my bicycle impractical, and I didn’t see a single bike during my stay. The random street layout you see on the map is for walking only, and there are many more tiny passages than the map shows, some tunnel-like under buildings, some dead ending in a beautiful courtyard, some only four feet wide. Wandering aimlessly, I found plaza after plaza (called “campos” here and nowhere else) ringed with outdoor seating for restaurants, bars and cafes. All had impressive statuary and fountains, some had trees and stone benches.

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The canals and Grand Canal were alive with fancy gondolas for the tourists, taxis and buses, work boats, delivery boats, personal craft from flatboat to ChrisCraft, even garbage “trucks” and UPS boats. Rowed gondolas, just like the tourist ones but plain and simple, served as ferries across the Grand Canal, saving a long walk to one of the bridges for half a Euro. I used them a few times. Ten or fifteen Venetians and a couple of tourists would stand (no seats), with only calf-high gunwales between passengers and the water, while two men rowed us across.

I found the cheapest room in town, and fell madly in love with Alina, the young Polish woman who was in charge there. To my surprise, she seemed delighted with me. We had a super evening in a jazz club, good live music and wine. The pianist (also the owner of the club) knew Alina and joined us at our table after his set, and we met some more very cool people as well, musicians and artists. It was a long and very happy evening.

In the morning I knew I had to leave, but I lingered, wandering the streets, sitting in the sun on a campo fountain steps, delighted to be there. I finally got back to my bike and crossed that bridge, wondering how and when I would return.

So that was Italy, basically. Another two days of flat riding, now on nicer roads (with a forgettable roadside campsite), and then I spied the mountains of Slovenia. A little while later,in the border city of Gorizia (Goriča) I looked up to see the signs were no longer in Italian. Arrivederci Italia.

More Catalonya

Think Catalonya is done, and it just keeps on surprising you.

I thought I would have breakfast, ride downhill to Barcelona and catch a ferry to Genoa, Italy.

Half the town was at breakfast, but it wasn’t for me, only a tableful. The rest were there because on Sunday mornings that’s where they gather. Marti was slinging omelettes and coffee and heavy fare. Although it is almost nine, they are on two hours of daylight savings time here, so the sun is low and the air is chilly. There are old couples, and families, of course, but also tables full of done-up bcycle racer types, all ages, loading up; and tables of off-road motorcycle guys, in boots and leathers and helmets, old and young, fathers and sons, laughing and shouting, lots of them; farmers with sons in clean work clothes, eating from giant plates of food. One out of four men were having beer with their breakfasts. The sound was of a party at full swing.

My table was stuffing me with carbs and protein, urging me to eat more and take some with me. Jordi and I got a ten o’clock start, and talked for ten miles. Then I was on my own to ride and reflect. They know how to live here in Catalonya. Without a guide like Jordi I might have ridden through Girondella and thought it was a quiet, boring little nowhere town past it’s prime. And in some ways it was, with the closed mills and struggling farms. But it is also full of vital, happy people living busy lives and enjoying it to the fullest.

Sometimes I follow a Google map for walking, no matter how ridiculous it seems with freeway shoulders, nice bikeways, city streets and goat-ath roads. It’s often interesting territory I wouldn’t see otherwise. I followed one such route after lunch that went through town after town, then through a big national forest. It was longer than the highway, but I could camp and reach Barcelona next day.

That developed into two days of riding and camping in a strangely perfect land. The road was smooth dirt in places but rocky, steep, and loose in others; most four-wheel-drive vehicles would have made it. For me it was almost all low-gear grunting and very fast or very slow descending. In two days I saw two vehicles (moving, that is).

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There were people living here, miles from the pavement, at three to five mile intervals, in very old stone farmsteads, most with extensive waterworks, cisterns, animal troughs and garden irrigation. Leeks and brassica, fruits and nuts, goats and poultry. Some of the water was cached rain, some from wells. Most homesteads had power, all had woodpiles and antennas. The road at each one ran through the center of the dooryard, inches from the house, inches from open barn doors, and was paved with stones. It was their driveway, with kids’ toys and dog bowls to dodge and gates to negotiate.

I was shocked to see the first one. I came on it from the back, and when I rounded the corner I was in their dooryard, huge paving stones and small parked vehicles, chairs and benches, looking like an oversized patio. The road continued on the far side, but I was face to face with the owner, and we were both amazed at what we saw.

“Holy Shit!” he said.

“You speak English!” I said.

He was 25 or 30, a musician in a Catalyun band, (named Sherpah, like my bike, Sherpa, hmm, http://www.sherpah.cat, the drummer), had a wife and two kids, was doing some bio ag on an old farm, and he had to go in ten minutes. As he loaded his diesel VW van he made sure I was seated, had beer, water, food, etc., and we talked about music, kids, farming, heritage and tradition, all in ten or fifteen minutes. He told me if I continued, I wouldn’t see pavement for three days, and shook my hand with gusto when I indicated my intentions. A fresh beer, goodbye to all, and I was left at their table, my toes on the google maps blue route line. They begged me to stay until they returned, but I lunched and left. One good guy I’ll never forget.

Over the next couple of days I saw four or five more establishments like this, some bigger, some better, all of them vigorously inhabited. I didn’t meet any more inhabitants, but I filled my bottles at their spigots, admired their gardens, and left the gates as I found them.

I would have been happy if it went on like this for weeks. But after a couple of days the road got bigger and soon I had pavement, downhill all the way to Barcelona through towns and city, to the center and then the center of the center and there’s Christopher Columbus, at the harbor, sword pointed seaward, surrounded by historic churches and modern art.

Barcelona has a great, vibrant internationally hip feel, sporty and friendly. I rode around, found some neighborhoods, had some food, met good people who watched my bike while I cleaned up. To top off my visit on Catalonya, I had a Catalonyan cream, a sweet creamy custard in a round earthenware bowl, burnt to a crisp on top, hard to crack through with a spoon, a taste of burnt marshmallow with sweet custard.

At the Port I faced a decision: Genoa, Legarno (Florence), or Civitavecchia (Rome). Many factors involved: logistical, philosophical, economic, meteorological, general. Long story short, Rome. It was cheaper, included a bunk, and brought me to center, not northern Italy, with a better forecast, AND it left soon, taking care of the night’s lodging.

The the ferry was half full, crossing was rough. I was fine, but many suffered, including my cabin mate, a businessman with a truckload of goods. Picture me alone on the forbidden deck, one hand on my Fedora, the other gripping the rail, shouting, “YEE-hah!” into the wind and spray. Now picture me eating, blogging, and lounging in my cabin, lulled to sleep by the waves and creaking and wind noise, like sleeping in my camper on the way home to Vermont from Jane Street while someone else drives.

Next stop, Italy. But I won’t soon be forgetting Catalyuna.

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Euskal-Herria and Catalunya

Altogether I spent eight days crossing northern Spain, camping each night in the desert. The towns were not far apart–I think the longest distance was 30 kilometers, more often 10 or 20. Some towns were tiny, especially when I got off on the secondary, sometimes unpaved roads. Many towns were eerily silent, a dog or two, a rooster crowing, a very old man or woman walking with a cane and looking at me like I was a space man. One Sunday I found myself in the center of a prosperous small city at noon, with church goers walking about greeting each other, standing in line at the bakery to buy a loaf and a treat. I sat on a bench watching the storks in their bell-tower nest while I ate my sugar-almond-apricot pastry and soaked up the sun.

Sometimes I would ride into a little dusty desert town with one adobe bar and a dog asleep in the street, and have a beer with the old guys smoking cigars. I feel like a cowboy in a B-movie western. Not a word of English around here, but it doesn’t matter. A beer in a bar is a dollar and a quarter.

The desert was not all of one sort. I climbed up into some mountains, and the scrub and sagebrush became pine forests, still with the occasional farm, village, church, old castle, or dwelling. Agriculture seems to depend on a system of canals and concrete irrigation troughs, which resemble concrete ditches when they are low, ancient aqueducts when they are raised up on arches. As I neared my destination, a town of 5000 near Barcelona, I climbed and descended through some very beautiful forest on a very nice, smooth road, sweating for two hours on the uphills and freezing for twenty minutes on the downhills.  My Fedora keeps the sun off my burnt ears and neck,

I could carry on for a long time about the villages and the towns, roads and the campsites, vistas and castles, but I want to tell you about what I learned of the people and the culture. These Spaniards are a good, hard-working, tough bunch. They look at me with a scowl and dagger eyes (of course, I’m dressed in black with shades and a Fedora), but when I try my Spanish on them, they loosen up quickly.

Actually, my Spanish did me little good. In the Basque country, Euskal-Herria, they spoke Basque. They are ornery about being Basque, not Spanish. The signs near the border were in French and Basque, some Spanish. Invariably, the French would be spray-painted over, or the French spelling of the town changed to the Basque spelling. Grafitti was frequent and anti-Spain. One in English said, “This is not Spain!” One in Basque said something like, “1500 to 2000–500 years of occupation is enough!” Others I could understand from words like “revolution”, “¡No Spain!” and clenched fists. I didn’t meet anyone who spoke English; didn’t meet much of anybody but bakery clerks and gas station attendants. I went to a paint store to get alcohol for my stove, and the Spanish labels on the cans had Basque language stickers over them.

When I got past Pamplona a ways, I got into Catalunya. Another language, Catalon, and a population seemingly as ornery as the Basques. I was near Andorra, a tiny mountainous Catalon-speaking country that was never conquered by Spain or anybody else. More revolutionary graffiti, Spanish signs painted over, and Catalon language and pride evident in stores and gas stations. I got all these impressions while never really meeting anyone until I got to my Warm Showers host in Gironella, a town about the size of Middlebury. Jordi is 37, works in a factory, and has bicycled and motorcycled around the world for half of each year since he was a teen. He lives upstairs over the family grocery store, where mom Lourdes showed me to my bed, shower, kitchen, laundry, food, wine and veranda without a word of English but much warmth and pride. (Jordi’s parents live elsewhere in Gironella.) Jordi came home later; he speaks good English and Spanish; Catalon is his native tounge. Changing into clean clothes after a wonderful shower, Jordi and his cousin and three friends brought me to a place in a neighboring town (their Thursday night routine for years), a lively biker bar, standing room only, where we had beer and bacon sandwiches. These guys, all in their late thirties, grew up together, had varying levels of English, and they all understood bicycles. In fact Pep, now my pal, is proprietor of the local bicycle and motorcycle shop, and was a World Champion Trials Rider back in the nineties. World Champion! (Trials, popular in Europe and less so elsewhere, is the slow-motion, gymnastic art of riding on two wheels over a seemingly impossible obstacle course. Pep’s stripes were earned in the bicycle, not the motorcycle, but his shop specializes in both kinds of trials bike.) Later, at another bar back in Gironella, we got to meeting the other townspeople, drinking more beer, and having a good old time. They explained that my impressions were pretty accurate. Every one of them considered themselves Catalonian, not Spanish. They only spoke Spanish rarely, when they had to, and because it was taught in school. They didn’t much care who was the president of Spain, they answered only to the local police and not the national, and they considered their home to be under a 500-year-long occupation by a foreign country. Except for large and prosperous Barcelona, where Spanish was the main language and Catalon second, the whole area was said to be populated with people of the same opinion.

I was made to feel at home at Jordi’s in a most heartfelt way. Jordi left for work next morning before I awoke, and I found that Lourdes had brought a breakfast for me up from the grocery store. I did my laundry, gave myself a haircut, took another shower, and soon it was time to go to a neighbor’s for lunch, a two-hour affair with a small family. There Ramon and Antonia served home-made Patxaran (PATCH-er-RAHN), a plum liquor that my son Henry had experienced in Basque country a few years back, and Ratafia (RAHT-uh-FEE-yuh), a potent home-made liquor made from fresh walnuts, anise, raisins, cinnamon, herbs, and a lot of other ingredients. Three-year-old Elna served me ice cream, and made me miss my grandchildren once again.  I enjoyed talk of bicycle touring, camping, foreign places, gardening, herbs, women and alcohol with Ramon, Jordi, Antonia, and Jordi’s sometime traveling partner, Clemente. The men and I then repaired to a cool, dark restaurant for tea and coffee, where we were joined by a couple of townsmen. One of them was Jaume, who lived in Andorra and owned an agricultural equipment dealership in Gironella. We hit it off. He’s a type I have met before; maybe you have too. Prosperous, self-confident and somewhat charismatic, he has sharp features (nose, chin, hair, smile, clothes), more than a few extra kilos, a sharp wit and a quick tongue. He spoke Catalon, Spanish, French and Portugese, but little English. He liked to joke and tease. “¡Stihl!”, ¡Husqueverna!”, “¡John Deere!” we would shout at each other, slapping backs and laughing loudly. Long story short, we were all invited to his friend’s ranch for a beef barbecue that evening (he would tell his friend later). Jordi warned me that I should not expect my planned early-morning departure to actually happen. When you are invited to dinner here, the time is not specified because it is 21:00.

Somehow I sandwiched in a visit to Pep’s shop, where he had invited me to bring my bike to clean the desert dust from my drivetrain.  Pep’s beautiful wife Sylvia and charming ten-year-old daughter Julia kept me distracted while Pep cleaned my drivetrain.  I was allowed to polish my frame and wheels and check my air pressure, and for a moment I wished to end my travels right there. Pep, you are the best.

We meet up with Jaume (JOW-may) at a bar across the street from the grocery store. Jordi (JOR-dee) drove his father’s VW Van II very fast and very skillfully with Clemente (cli-MONN) and Quinti (KIN-tay) in back with my mandolin. That’s James, George, Clem and Quinten for you gringos.

Forgive the excess detail here, but detail is what this evening was fashioned from. We arrived to what is called, in Catalon, a Mas, a large established rural farm home. This one was named Escrigues after the Romans left; the name was still there, carved in stone above the door. It looked to me like a three-story hacienda with lots of trees, arched terraces with arched balconies above that and arched balconies above that, an iron gate that disappeared up into the stonework, a large dooryard with a carriage house over to the side, oversized doors from antiquity with a knocker the size of a guitar, stuff like that. The largest Saint Bernard specimen in existence came out to slobber on Jorme. Our hostess Laura opened the door and greeted us in an elegant flannel shirt and blue jeans.  She resembled a younger Madonna (the popular music star, not the religious icon). After some stairways, doors, vestibules and hallways, we found ourselves in a small room with a large Italian marble fireplace, where our host Jorgi (movie-star handsome and no relation to my warm showers host Jorgi, the skillful driver and world traveler) was cooking large steaks directly on the hardwood coals he had raked onto the hearth. The elaborate dragon andirons, the fireplace fittings for roasting and cooking, the dragon motif fireplace set, the candle sconces, chandelier, door and shutter hinges and locks, the doorknobs and handles, all were clearly crafted in wrought iron by the same hands centuries ago. The sturdy table and leather-seat chairs were somehow uncluttered with regular stuff; phone, newspaper, keys, sweater, books, sunglasses. Wine made on the premisis was passed around (men only) in a Catalunya porro, a glass carafe with a pointed spout coming off the side, through which you poured wine into your mouth, wine-skin style.

We were soon shown to the dining room, where fourteen-foot cielings made room for twelve-foot china and silver cabinets, huge chandeliers, bed-sized portraits and the like. We were seated at a sixteen-foot table with china, silver, linen, candles, the whole works. There were nine of us. After some translation, the rarest steak was soon hanging over the edges of my sizable plate, then piled with goat-cheese and tomato salad, what looked and tasted like potato chips but were soft enough to eat with a fork and still hot from the fryer, baked chick peas with crunchy, salty pork skins on top (served in what surely must have been great-great-grandmother’s favorite cast-iron heirloom), fresh bread in huge slices, and a sauce that resembled mayonaisse but tasted like garlic and olive oil and heaven. Salt was presented in a bowl coarsely ground, hot, and soft enough to crumble onto your steak with your fingers. Dipping everything into the garlic/olive-oil/heaven mixture, we ate. It was good. So far, except for the salt, everything was grown and prepared at the Mas.

This next bit might be rated PG for excess alcohol consumption. I had just recovered from our lunch when we met for a beer before the drive to the Mas. The porro of estate wine was still being passed around when glasses of Jorme’s family wine were poured, twenty years old, dark red, sweet and strong. Salut! Some local Catalon wine was also served, red and white. Then the host brought out his father’s Ratafia. Remember Ratafia, from way back there at lunchtime? This time it was served ice cold. Walnuts, anise, cinnamon, 30 herbs, about 35% alcohol, average guess. Sweet, but bitter too. When the host saw that I liked it, loved it, he kept my glass full. It was just right to wash down the almond-vanilla cake, brownie-like chocolate cake, and giant strawberries (not from the Mas). That was all pretty easy to wash down anyway, due to the healthy dollop of whipped cream on our plates. Not stiff whipped cream, not runny, just…whipped cream. It was good.
About a second and a half after I thought, “I could use a toothpick,” toothpicks appeared at my elbow on a scallopped plate arranged so that you could take one without touching the others with your fingertips. The hostess spoke to me for the first time, in un-accented English.
“Was it good?” she asked.
“Very good,” I said. “You speak English.”  
“I was educated in Switzerland.”
Our host and one or two of the men kept up the lively conversation, with close attention and frequent contribution from the others. The women and I were silent, attentive, smiling. The host wouldn’t let my glass get empty. Ratafia, my new favorite drink. I said, “This is the finest Ratifia I have ever had!” in English, and we all laughed like it was the funniest thing ever heard. Clemente translated it and we laughed louder and poured more. Good; they were as drunk as I was. We had some laughter about my sunburned face and white hair and beard. As the oldest there, a traveler and a guest, I was shown much respect.   
I thought to myself, “I’d like to play my mandolin.” Laura said, “Would you play your mandolin for us, please?” Still at the table, I played Maiden’s Prayer and Real Laid Back to rapt attenton and applause. More Ratafia followed. More raucus laughter. There was a general getting up and clearing of the the table; Ramon and Melissa left, and Jordi (of the Mas) had to turn out the kitchen lights to stop Clement from doing dishes. (Shall I describe the kitchen for you foodies? Starts with an oversized Aga built into a hooded tile alcov; tile floors, stone walls, and arched windows; copper sinks in addition to the original massive stone ones; a chopping block the size of a Fiat holding a loaf the size of a bed pillow and a sword-like knife; big hams and cheeses, copper and cast iron hanging thick from wrought-iron racks and hooks; large wooden shelves with large white stoneware bowls and pitchers.  No electrical appliances except a commercial bakery-style bread kneading machine.  No fridge but a door to a pantry where a spring-fed stone water trough keeps things fresh in wood-lidded crockery and cork-stopped stoneware jugs. More. There.)
Seven now, we repaired to the room with the fire, where the host threw on another burley fruitwood crotch. When it smoked and refused to catch, I distinguished myself by blowing it into flames with three big ones while the hostess was reaching for kindling. Drunken bastards hurt my sunburn slapping my back in admiration. An ancient-looking brown stoneware bottle of gin, some glass bottles of tonic water, lemons and crushed ice were brought out, and strong gin-and-tonics were prepared in long-stemmed snifters of some sort right there on the table so  that the host and hostess would not miss a syllable of conversation. I picked up the mandolin and asked, “Happy or sad? Fast or Slow?”
“Some of each, please.” 
 Appalachian Spring, Big John McNeil, Ashokan Farewell and then Sailor’s Hornpipe. They thanked me profusely, pleaded for more. I tried Flintstones and it worked, Jorme howling “¡WILMA!” at the end with such perfection that the laughter went on for longer than the tune did. Now I wasn’t the only one with a bright red face. The fire and the conversation died down in a pleasant lull as we all sipped our drinks, sighed and smiled. 
“One more please, a slow one?” Alone Again, Naturally. All eyes were either closed, gazing at the mandolin or staring into space; all were wet, mine included.
2:00AM. Goodbyes were said, hugs and long, two-handed handshakes, and we were walked to our vehicle. The dog came out to slobber sleepily on Jorme one more time. We took back roads to Gironella for security reasons. We let Clemente out in the middle of nowhere, because that’s where he lived. Dropping Jorme and Quinti off at their car with another heartfelt goodbye, we surely woke townspeople with our cries of “¡WILMA!”
Less than thirty meters from Jordi’s house he said, “There’s still one place open. Want a beer?” I said, “The night is young.” He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds and said, “Yes, it is.” After a few seconds more he said, “OK, you want a beer or no?”
The place was still hopping with young folks watching the band pack up. Jordi finally let me pay for something after I whacked him with my hat. We took our beers to a table and met Quinti number two, a happy local fellow with English. Quinti helped to refine my view of Catalunya. “I like Spain,” he said. “But this is not Spain. This is Catalunya.  I like America, too. But this is not America. This is Catalunya. I love to visit Spain, I love the Spanish people. But I am not Spanish. I am Catalon. I hope to visit America some day. I’m happy that you visited Catalunya. I hope you return.”

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 That would make a good ending, no? But it goes on.  High on Yerba Mate, I stayed up until sunrise writing these paragraphs.  In a stroke of luck (both kinds), I deleted my work accidentally and irretreivably after a couple of hours.  The resulting re-write is better, richer, smoother and shorter, in my humble, biased opinion.  I slept from 8:00 to 11:00 and went across the street for breakfast.  Jordi was delivering grocericies with his father. At the busy cantina, Marta refused my money.  “Hong Kong” she said.  A couple of hours later, after a rain and a nap, I was invited to the home of Guissepe and Lourdes, Jordi’s parents, for another of these Catalunya lunches; beautiful, elaborate, delicious, exotic fare served with four kinds of alcoholic beverage, some home-made. Guissepe showed me his travels on a map of America.  He has several times flown to the USA, rented a nice car, and driven thousands of miles.  He has visited more North American cities than I have.  He loves cars and trucks.  He wanted all the details on what I drive and what I like; he approved heartily. 

Now I’m back at Jordi’s typing this while he and his friends make beer in the kitchen.  In a little while I will start packing, preparing for tomorrow’s ride to Barcelona and my ferry to Italy.  But not before a farewell, Sunday-morning breakfast with half the town at Marta’s cantina. At Mass there will be prayers, I have been assured, for good weather and favorable winds, safety and protection from evil for the American traveler. I leave Gironella and Catalunya with regret and joy, a smile on my face and a lump in my throat.