The Battle with Italy And the Mexican Sierra

I’d never really visited Italy until fairly recently. This isn’t about Italy though, more of an impossible abstinence from Italian food! The Dolomites had always been on my list, prior to 2013 I’d only taken one short trip across the alps to the Gran Paradiso area to climb in 2006. Italy had always been a bit far to drive to and a little close to bother with the hassle of flying whilst encumbered with climbing kit. Morocco and the Caucasus were worth flying to, and France and Switzerland had enough climbing within an affordable driving distance.

It wasn’t until the Christmas of 2013 when I’d set out to cycle to Rome, a preparatory trip for Gavin and my plan to cycle around the world, that I actually started to explore Italy a little, Gavin had joined me for part of the ride and another great friend Rob flew into Genoa to cycle down across Tuscany to Rome. Starting on the 20th December it was the pretty much shortest 3 weeks of the year. But aside from sitting out a storm and catching up as a result through France by train, the weather was kind and the sun on the Mediterranean coast left me on a high through the cold winter back in England. Subsequently I found myself back there a couple of years later on route from Croatia to Venice, again on the bike.

Back to the present, a trattoria with this backdrop in Bernal

There are two nations which have truly conquered the world, the Irish (who are a part of my family history I hold dear to) and the Italians. The former for their kindly ways and love of light refreshment, the latter for their fine cuisine and all its derivative forms.

It wasn’t until I started travelling that I’d come to realise just how widespread Italian cuisine has become. Pizza and pasta, so far, has been available the world over. As a hungry cyclist perhaps I’d had something of a tendency toward the carb content of these foods in some respects but I’d come to realise when cycling through Europe that I’d eaten Italian food in every country I’d visited. The realisation came when spending a night in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and devouring a delicious pasta dinner in advance of the century I’d planned down to Tirana the next day. And with that realisation I decided to try and get through Albania without revisiting Italy!

Though with the best of intentions I’d been spinning comfortably all morning but hungry and still with a good 40mi to go I rolled into this tiny Albanian town and sitting down to refuel I realised I was in a trattoria and entertainingly found myself eating Italian as my first meal in the country. At least here there was the excuse that Italy was still only a short sail to the west. If it wasn’t for the Adriatic then the countries would share a border!

Entering Canada was the second entertaining first meal. Crossing the border on the Top of the World highway, the previous night I’d endulgently ordered a god-knows-how-big pizza at a restaurant in Tok, Alaska, and unable to finish it, which was kind of the plan anyway, I’d left with a box of food tor the next day. Hence crossing the border into Canada, the very first thing I’d eaten was a slice of cold pizza.

Street food in Mexico

I was doing fairly well in the Lower 48, but for a very tasty dinner with friends some 6 weeks in but the Lower 48 can hardly be considered separate to Alaska and Hawaii. Approaching the Mexican border however, with the prevalence of Mexican cuisine I was hopeful that this could be the first success in avoiding Italian food…

And so for the first month or 2 I succeeded. Mexican food is delicious. Simple and samey but with many variations and local/regional variations on the same basic ingredients that the food had yet to get boring. Interestingly in Guadalajara when offered the choice of restaurant to go out to, for the very reason of my attempted abstinence from Italian food, I’d chosen the burger offer over pizza; and what a choice, with a couple of months of Mexican food, the slight over indulgence in burgers in the USA had worn off and a fun evening, in the great company of some American friends was one to be remembered. I’d forgotten how good a burger could be!

Anyhow, back to Italy, staying with a friend in central Mexico here’s where the attempt failed. What better dish to cook for two hungry cyclists? A vast quantity of delicious Gorgonzola and pasta. Oh well – I wasn’t exactly saddened by my failure in Mexico, it’s been a fairly jovial attempt and Mexico is a huge country!

The huge Pena de Bernal reminded me of Calpe Rock in Spain

This brings me onto the here and now, and the prompt for writing the story I’d retold an increasingly frequent number of times. Without any cause to avoid Italian establishments I was out and about here in the beautiful pilgrimage town of Bernal in Queretaro, and looking for breakfast I wandered up to an unlikely looking restaurant, advertised as Restaurante & Pizza but open for breakfast. Inside led to a courtyard and stairs led to a terrace, where I was shortly tucking into possibly the best Mexican breakfast I’d had so far. With the backdrop of the Peña de Bernal, a huge monolith rising out of the desert and dominating the skyline of the town. I’d been rolling across the Sierra for 4 days of seemingly endless climbing. Two days ago I’d set out on the final big ascent, 59km from Jalpan. Now it was time for a day off.

The rock reminded me of Calpe in Spain and was the reason I’d swung by the town. The thought of a scramble to the top captivated me though tired from the previous few days I overslept sunrise and with a cloudless sky I was time limited for my own wellbeing. I’ve found the afternoons too hot to ride in recently. So lately I’d been up at 5 and hitting the road soon after 6 to make the most of the cooler mornings. Big distances in the hills have been hard. The sun draining strength beyond about mid morning. And the legs slowly growing more fatigued.

Recovering from the arduous climbs, and from a couple of injuries that all seemed to come at once, Bernal has made for an excellent town to take a break, touristy but without an English word in earshot. And quieter now in the post Easter lull. I’m almost half way down through Mexico now. A few more days cycling will put me down at the Pyramids outside Mexico city for the next rest day. And as for the Italian food, perhaps Belize or Guatemala will prove more of a success!

Crossing the Mexican Sierra was tough. one climb was 59km but at least this descent was the other side!

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