Monday, 10 September 2007

Day 62 - La Storta - Rome - 15km

Having ridden our horses into Rome and driven our car into Rome, I am dreading cycling into Rome, but actually it is far better than I expect. We locate the initial (though brief) flurry of VF signs that direct us onto the via Cassia running through La Storta, and from there use the AIVF map to guide us right up to the cycle path along the Tiber river - a journey of just under an hour. Ten minutes later we are in St Peter's Square and posing for the obligatory photograph - as easy as that - though even with the evidence in front of me, I find it difficult to believe that we have got here a second time without experiencing any major disasters.
From here we locate the pilgrim office, have our credentials stamped for the last time and receive our certificates. So now all we have to is find out about the trains home.

Of course, there has to be a hitch and it is even more frustrating, because it is entirely our own fault. We had assumed (as we assume so many things without taking the trouble to confirm them) that taking our bicycles on the train to Paris would not be a problem. Wrong. Local trains take bikes, main line ones don't. The only positive aspect in all of this is that we can now pass the information on so that future, equally unprepared pilgrims, need not make the same mistake. Anyway, we have resolved the problem by hiring a car to the Italian border and then hiring another to go on from there to France.

So now it is time for closure. We have thrown away our battered water bottles, finally given up on finding the other glove from the pair I used to have and pushed our cycling shorts down to the bottom of our panniers. The end, except for a resume from Paul on the state of our bikes, equipment and bodies after 2,000 kilometres.
Overall our bikes have done remarkably well despite the hammering they have received and the weight they have carried. In total we had 14 punctures and replaced 24 individual brake blocks. The Geant bike which we also used for the second half of last year's journey is still running well with some signs that the front (only) suspension is getting tired. The Decathlon bike far exceeded what we expected and is going well other than a slight slip in the gears which we think is the result of a twist to the chain when we broke the rear gear change mechanism, just before Fidenza.
Our panier bags remain water-tight, but unfortunately the fixings are shot. Our dog basket is showing the first signs of disintegration and I am afraid will be retired.
Our digital camera just held out for the last couple of photos, but the mechanical focus and lens cover mechanism has finally died - I think through getting wet in one of the many storms, although this does not explain the sugary goop that I found on the lens. It is now added to our collection of dead electronics.
The PDA and GPS unit are fine and the laptop survives despite various abuses. The worst was down to me when I rolled out of a bunk and collapsed in a heap on the floor with the computer breaking my fall.
We have gathered 4 gigbytes of data including: 1400 photographs, 2500 voice recorded directions, 2300 wayponts and 250,000 GPS trace points. Mercifully this is now stored in 3 places and so I can sleep a bit more easily.
It is difficult to consider this year's journey as a pilgrimage, it was much more a piece of work to gather the information we need for the guide. As a consequence the opportunities for reflection, were much reduced. The bikes were both useful and a burden depending on the situation. Although they certainly took the stress from the nightly issue of finding a bed and meal, they are no substitute for the companionship of our horses. We are probably crazy to take Vasco with us wherever we go, but he so often succeeds in taking the tension out of the more difficult moments and is always successful in winning us new friends.
I think we both feel physically much fitter for the experience and the scales say I have lost 5 kilos.
Our thanks go to everyone who was in touch with encouraging messages while we were travelling. A bigger thank you for those that contributed to the charities. Thanks to those that went the extra mile in helping us. Thanks also to the makers of the M & M's that gave us the energy to keep going and Messrs Maretti and Peroni for the elixir (beer) that blocked the pain and sent us to sleep.
There is a real sense that the route is coming to life with improvements in signing, better knowledge by the communities of the asset they are lucky to share and hopefully with a wider range of information and guide-books. In Italy low cost accommodation is widely available (unless you have a dog), although more still needs to be done in France. We hope you have the opportunity to try it.

Day 61 - Vico Matrino - La Storta - 58km

Today we follow the regular VF signed route all the way to Sutri (where we take time out to visit the Etruscan amphitheatre and pagan chapel, which we could not do with Lubie last year), but from here we strike off onto our own route in an attempt to stay away from the via Cassia entirely. Our memories of one particular dual carriageway section between here and Rome haunt us still, so we have decided we cannot recommend the same to other people who may follow us.
Our new route (which misses none of the important VF towns) takes us over the Sabatini mountain range and down to the Bracciano lake, which we find to be a highlight in itself. Overall the road is relatively quiet and the climb bearable, so we are very pleased with this first section. From here the traffic increases and makes the route less inviting for walkers and riders, but fortunately we are able to find a road that links back to an off-road section identified by the AIVF map (we used it ourselves last year), which does involve some climbing and extra distance, but leads pilgrims straight into La Storta, an ideal stopping off place (for those who want it) before the final 15km into Rome.

As a result of our new route we make up time and distance and arrive in La Storta a day earlier than anticipated, which is a pleasant surprise. We stay in the same hotel as last year, eat in the same restaurant and generally seem to repeat history, though notably without nearly as much stress - perhaps the result of simply being more experienced or possibly the knowledge that this year our horses are safe at home.
PP The hotel is the Albergo Il Tempio Di Apollo in neighbouring commune of Isola Farnese. It is not cheap at 75 euros for a double room, but the prices in the heart of Rome are generally higher. The public transport system in Rome is superb and very cheap - 1 euro from Isola Farnese to the heart of Rome using bus, train and metro.
Not surprisingly as you approach Rome the traffic becomes more dense and the diversions needed to avoid it become more extreme. I think we will be able to offer options for those that want to put the miles behind them as quickly as possible and also something for those that sensibly want to minimise contact with the traffic.

Day 60 - Viterbo - Vico Matrino - 37km

Another good and relatively Via Cassia free day. Our route is created from a mixture of AIVF, local VF signage and some masterful GPS work from Paul - of which more later. Having found our way out of Viterbo, using the fastest and least convoluted route possible, but nevertheless involving a degree of traffic dodging which will be unpleasant for riders, cyclists and walkers, we spend a fair amount of time and kilometres on pleasant minor roads.
After this, most of the route is off-road until we reach Vetralla and have a lunch break. Here the VF signers have a minor crisis and the signs lead us to an overgrown and totally impassable section, leaving us with the AIVF route, which involves a very short section on the Via Cassia and then a good distance on busy, but still fairly minor roads. Then we go off-road again and it is here that Paul manages to identify another option, which keeps us off the Via Cassia for much longer than either the AIVF or the local signers have managed.
Then some more confusion when the signs lead us into one of the hazel tree plantations (or Nutella groves as Paul calls them) that have taken over from the vines and cover every metre of spare space. We are doubtful that the owners would appreciate crowds of pilgrims crushing their nuts, but we persist with the route until it becomes clearly untenable. As an alternative we plot another, off road, but public route that does not trespass and ends on the starting point of the next section.

A good day all in all. No desperately steep climbs, a reasonable percentage off road, all of it perfectly acceptable for cyclists and better still minimal contact with the via Cassia - so very, very different from our experience with Lubie last year for which we have to thank both the VF signers and the knowledge gained from often all too painfully won experience.

Now we are really on the home stretch and I am two minds about how I feel. An end always brings a new beginning, which in our case will be a winter spent translating GPS traces and audio notes into guide book form, as well as gathering all the information we have not been able to acquire on route. In my head I have at least three possible designs for the layout, each with its own specific advantages, but no doubt the reality of the printed page will change all that. In the end I can only hope that we achieve our primary aim which is to provide a simple, easily identifiable route, with options to meet the needs of each specific group - riders, cyclists and walkers. Our secondary aim is to support this with all the supplementary information pilgrims need for a comfortable, safe, enjoyable and well informed journey - accommodation, historical background, local detail etc. Finally all of this must be presented in an easily accessible and durable guidebook format - easy!!
Vico Matrino is a small village with not much (other than Nutella) to offer the world. However, last year in the middle of a downpour we were grateful to find here another eccentric running the il Profeta B & B who was able to offer us a bed and a place to park our horse. With this memory, we are hopeful that this backwater will also be immune to the influence of DOODAH - well almost, "no problem with il cane" and the price? "65 euros including breakfast and yes a 10 euro premium for the dog" and this said with a poodle yapping at her feet.

We have done pretty well so far in avoiding the dread via Cassia without adding too many kilometres or mountains, but today we have to come up with a solution to that stretch of dual carriageway where the pilgrims (and their horses) are asked to walk the wrong way down the hard shoulder with the Roman commuters honking in amazement.

Day 59 - Bolsena - Viterbo - 35km

Another good day. The sun is up, the tracks are clearly signed and we successfully amend one section to avoid an unnecessary climb. We are in good spirits and all goes well without hitch until the local VF-signers and our AIVF guide seem to have mutually agreed to leave us in the lurch. Paul and I find ourselves in a familiar piece of woodland where dim memories of getting horribly lost last year lurk in the shadows. Without signs our only option is to use these and find a way out, which surprisingly enough we do.

Next we travel along the old via Cassia, the original, clearly visible and highly evocative Roman road that took our predecessors to Rome, though with a great deal more hardship - no showers, beer stops or vast pizzas for those pilgrims. I do my best to imagine their privations and sensations as we bole along, but have great difficulty.
Just a few kilometres before Viterbo, we pass the mineral pools we saw last year, but had been unable to enjoy because there was nowhere shady to tether Lubie. This year we hope to try again, but this time it is the dog rule that confounds us, plus the fact that I do not have a swimming costume on and the pools are crowded with bathers.

Last year Viterbo was a black spot for us because we spent many hot kilometres getting lost round a military airport, and then had to skirt the centre via a number of frightening junctions and flyovers. This year everything is easy. We avoid the airport, we only see the flyover in the distance and discover that the ancient centre is really quite pleasant. And, guess what? It's party time again, this time in the form of a huge medieval pageant involving a sumptuous display of costumes and crowds of people quite simply enjoying themselves. Paul and I enjoy ourselves for as long as I can bear it, but then retire at some ridiculous time like 8.30 because I am even more tired than usual, though the day has not been exceptionally hard.

We had hoped to try out the hostel in Viterbo - Instituto Adoratici Sangue de Cristo - but having located it we find a rusted gate and grimy windows and no one home. I guess it has fallen into disuse. We thankfully meet the usual DOODAH block at a posh hotel in the old town and as a consequence stumble on the eccentric Albergo Roma which welcomes us and Vasco at a fraction of the cost.

On our way here we passed through the 100 km mark - that is 100 km from Rome. This falls in Montefiascone, a small town that we failed to appreciate last year and the frenetic traffic even on a Sunday morning has done nothing to improve our view.
100 km prompts thoughts that the end is in sight. This is always a time of mixed emotions. I think we are both (or all 3) inveterate nomads and the idea of stopping and returning to "normality" has an odd feel. We also know that the last 100 km will be tough in a different kind of way - our constant challenge will be to find ways to avoid the growing pressures of road traffic, the warmth of the welcome that we have found in the countryside will fade under the influence of the big city and Rome is quite clearly a bastion of DOODAH. On the upside we have our family and friends to return to and an even longer list of new projects that we (she) has conjured up over the last 2 months.

Day 58 Abbadia San Salvatore - Bolsena - 59km

An excellent start and finish for an excellent day. As we leave the sun is shining in a cloudless sky, just what we need after yesterday's soaking. Then we have easy downhill riding for the best part of the morning, also just what we need. Better still, the roads are quiet and the large off-road section takes us through breathtaking countryside that we can appreciate all the more because the cycling is so good. Today after an initial section where we have to find our way out of Abbadia San Salvatore independently, we find the cross country Pisoni route a great improvement over the Via Cassia hugging AIVF route, while the local VF-signers have searched out some alternatives that only enhance the route even more.

By the time we reach Acquapendente, a place we only slogged through in the rain last year, we have sufficient faith in the brown VF signs to follow them into the centre (something we definitely could not have dared to do last year) and are rewarded with a very pleasant Piazza that we would otherwise have missed. We stop here for lunch.

And so the story goes on - brief, but very brief encounters with the dreaded Via Cassia, though only on short and quiet sections, and then more off-road tracks with only a few hills that warrant getting off to push. Then Bolsena.

Last year we opted for the lakeside route because it was flatter and, we thought, better signed - a big mistake as we can now see. Much of our route had been along the via Cassia and even where it was not the roads were busy and the drivers horse unfriendly. For all these reasons Bolsena appeared as an unappealing tower high up on a ridge that we passed by without a pause. Now we know that it is in fact a hidden treasure that no one in their right mind would want to miss.

Bolsena's ancient centre is charming, the huge basilica is imposing and the people are perhaps the most welcoming we have encountered yet - an atmosphere further enhanced by a local triathlon competition and the inevitable celebrations. As far as we can tell, Italian is in permanent party mode.

But the best is yet to come. Brothers you should see how your Sisters of the Suore San Sacramento deal with pilgrims and their dogs. The convent door is opened by a tiny nun who makes me feel like Goliath. In response to my pathetically phrased question about a bed for the night, she smiles sweetly and pulls me inside, but I hold back and point at Vasco. She shakes her head and tells me that she is sorry - "Cane (dog) no."

Expecting as much, but pleased that the situation is made clear at the outset, I thank her and turn to go away, but my arm is held again and now another, equally tiny nun (Paul describes them as dormice) joins us and indicates that I should follow her inside.

I am taken to a large room with an exquisitely tended garden visible through a large a window at one end. The nun points to it - "Cane." They could not try harder for us and our problematic dog, but they do not know Vasco. He will howl and bring various houses down if we leave him outside for the night and through a variety of ludicrous gestures I tell them so, while also ensuring that they understand I appreciate their efforts. Now the two nuns have a rapid fire conversation between themselves and their next move is to grab an arm each and practically drag me up to room with two spotless white beds and a bathroom. "Le chien et vous." One of them tries her limited French out on me and suddenly everything becomes easier. I thank and thank them, saying how much I appreciate their dog dispensation and add that we will visit the basilica at 6.00 when I have gathered they will be saying Mass - if only they really knew what this means in terms of self-sacrifice. Enough said! I eat my words about ALL religious communities and reserve them for just SOME.

PP There are many routes around Abbadia San Salvadore and its twin mountain top partner Radicofani. Last year we stuck close by the SS2 (Via Cassia) which lead us between industrial complexes and seemingly unfriendly roadside café's, not helped by days of continuous rain. The route we travel today is so much better with freedom from traffic, gorgeous immense landscapes all enhanced by clear blue skies.

I, and I am sure the bank manager, are grateful to the dormice for saving us from another hotel bill. Unlike the fee demanding Benedictine monks the dormice need prompting on the subject of money and apologetically suggest 8 euros per head, they get more of course.

Day 57 - San Quirico d'Orcia - Abbadia San Salvatore - 40km

Paul's birthday and the only surprise I can offer is a reasonably clear sky, the promise that I will make it up to him when we get back and a challenging day - physically and spiritually.

Having set off with a cool wind behind us and the infinite expanse of the Tuscan landscape in front, we are in good form and quite excited because we have decided we will forge a new route from a combination of Pisoni's and the AIVF options, but with one principle and important aim - to avoid the via Cassia. Having tracked far too many kilometres of it last year and personally experienced just how dangerous and stressful even a short distance can be, we have vowed to find a viable, enjoyable alternative. Inevitably this involves a number of extremely stiff climbs that expose the term 'rolling hills' for the misnomer it really is. Hills don't 'roll, they only go up and down in varying degrees of gradient, which in this particular section of Tuscany is almost exclusively 1 in 5, or steeper. Nevertheless, we succeed in finding a route that will make great walking and riding, with a reasonable challenge for those mountain bikers who enjoy that kind of thing - better still we have not touched one centimetre of the via Cassia.

As ever, just when everything is going well someone has to throw a spanner in our wheels. We are enjoying a downhill stretch, when the rumbling thunder and ominous show of boiling grey clouds that has been threatening to burst for the last half hour, finally coagulates into a storm directly over our heads. The only positive aspect is that we are not far from Abbadia San Salvatore and so do not get desperately wet and frozen, but this is where the negative part comes in.

We locate the Foresteria monastery listed by Pisoni as offering accommodation and, encouragingly, the first monk we meet greets us enthusiastically and notifies one of his colleagues, via an intercom, that we and our dog are waiting outside. Then he leaves and about five minutes later another (notably less enthusiastic) member of the community arrives, makes sure we understand that we will have to pay for the accommodation (though this hostel is listed as accepting voluntary donations rather than a fixed fee), gives Vasco a sideways look, indicates through an array of sign language that dogs smell, but nevertheless takes us to a respectable room with en suite. On the way we meet an English monk who asks us a number of questions about our trip and Vasco (albeit in a rather 'eccentric' manner), which makes us feel slightly more welcome than our current guide monk.

Paul and I start to unpack, breathe a sigh of relief because the rain has started hammering down with renewed force outside and then meet monk number 4. "You have my computer." Paul and I look around nervously, note that there is indeed a laptop on the sideboard and step back to let him retrieve it. "You have a dog." Yes, with Vasco sitting at my feet there is no point in denying the fact - we have a dog. "Dogs are not allowed." Now we start to protest that we have spoken to three previous monks, all of whom have seen Vasco and all of whom have agreed that we can stay. But this is not sufficient for Monk Number 4."I go see about this."

We are left in limbo for at least ten minutes before our adversary re-enters and tells us that the situation is impossible, but it is raining - a confusing announcement, perhaps an ultimatum, but either way we are left in no doubt that our presence is not welcome. I resolve any further confusion by letting him know that during 7 weeks of travel, and many nights of staying in religious hostels, this is the first time we have been treated quite so badly and therefore have no wish to remain.

People who have been reading this blog will already be familiar with my views with regard to religion - although they are always expressed with a large portion of tongue in cheek. A percentage of these views no doubt come from my unhappy experience of being a Church of England boarder in a Catholic convent school, but I am equally certain that time and maturity have ensured my current views are more balanced, objective and perhaps even more importantly, focused on a personal moral code that bears a strong resemblance to the 10 commandments.

Nevertheless, this occasion does nothing to dispel my conviction that religious intensity, Christian or otherwise, engenders selfish adherence to principles and rules without common human understanding. Pilgrims following in our wake, without dogs, will no doubt receive a reasonable welcome at Foresteria monastery, but the more perceptive cannot fail to notice the underlying frigidity of the atmosphere and frankly bizarre behaviour of some of the monks - a great shame.

So, all in all not a particularly Happy Birthday for Paul, but as the town seems otherwise pleasant and the rain has stopped, perhaps a good meal and a good bottle of wine will take the sting out of our smarting spirits.

The route that we choose takes us passed enormous vistas of Tuscan scenery with even more dramatic hill-top settlements including Rocca d'Orcia. It seems that the more we travel through this part of the world the more beauty we discover. The hills mean that all routes are challenging in the region, but I am pleased that we have found something that does not waste too many kilometres and repays the effort with staggering views while saving people from the risks and fumes of the SS2.

After our experience with the monastery we took the easy, but no doubt expensive option of the Kappa 2 Hotel - dog welcome in room, but must be carried in public places - in case the other guests take offence?

Day 56 - Siena - San Quirico d'Orcia - 56km

Out through Siena's streets and into a normal Italian workday - party forgotten and chaotic traffic packing the formerly car free streets. Paul and I battle our way through and try to withdraw from the throng long enough to take a photo. As we dither and fiddle, the group of students we had met the day before stop to ask us where we are heading today - I have no idea but Paul gives a passable answer.
We exchange news and views with their lecturer, with whom we had not managed to speak to the day before, promising also to send him a copy of our guide book. In return he offers to give us copies of reports by his students who have walked the St James Way and the Via Francigena - I sense this could be a mutually useful relationship.
Then it is out into the 'boonies' (where does that word come from?) as Paul calls them. I remember not liking this part of Tuscany last year and not just because it was raining. Unfortunately the natural landscape has nothing to do with the barren desert we are confronted with now. The rolling hills are still there (too many) as is the uniquely Tuscan blue haze on the horizon, but the earth has been stripped bare. Hectare after hectare of ploughed, decimated land, interspersed with the occasional large farmhouse and line of conifers along a no doubt impressive driveway, but nothing else. Then, just to add to the desolation, a crosswind blows across the tops of the ridges where we are riding, slicing off yet another layer of soil and threatening to lay us horizontal - bikes and all. Perhaps this is why real exhaustion sets in for me about two thirds of the way through. We have just had a lunch break and the sugar levels should be high, but I find myself breathless, thirsty and nearly paralysed by leaden legs.
Still, the VF signers have not let us down and tracing the route on and off-road is relatively easy. Our only concern is that some of it may be too much on the busy roads for horse riders and we will look for an alternative when we have access to more detailed maps.

As a child I always had dreams of travel and discovery and you would think after all these years and the increasing sameness of the world, I should have grown out of it, but Italy still has some very special things for me and Siena is one of them. Every street is beautiful not only with those tall ocre painted houses squeezed together, but how, why do they make the streets curve and swoop? The spontaneous warmth of the Italians remains present despite the stresses of city life and just everything has that extra ounce of style.

Our walking and riding day is physically hard with heat and nearly 1000 metres of climbing with much fewer descents. The hill top farms and fortified villages are still picture book as is the sunset we have just witnessed.
In San Quirico d'Orcia we are too tired to comparison shop for the cheapest hotel and having followed a sign for a 2 star, which inexplicably earns an extra star as we wind our way up the last hill and so I wait for the surprise of the 3 star bill in the morning.