A difficult start, because this time we are quite literally trailblazing. Pisoni's recommended route takes pilgrims straight up the SS9 to Fidenza without a single deviation, impossible for horses and inadvisable for cyclists or walkers. The AIVF route offers an indistinct and (as we know from bad inexperience) difficult to locate route that meanders somehow or other to Fiorenzuola d'Arda and then improves, slightly, once it sets off for Fidenza. Now, we consult the AEVF maps and find that the section we need is missing and when we look at a GPS trace on their site, it is immediately obvious that the pilgrims who had made it must have taken a bus for the first and worst section or perhaps even missed it out altogether. So now we have no alternative but to find another, completely new option - the problem being that for this we will need to buy a detailed map and ... you've probably guessed it ... the only place we can get one is closed.
Back to the drawing board. We have one reasonable map that shows the SP6 as a possible alternative. We try it and find that it too is busy, but just about bearable for walkers and cyclists, though still inadvisable for horses - we will have to search out an alternative for them when we get back home. So, we manage to wend our relatively uncomfortable, completely unsigned way through to Fiorenzuola d'Arda after which the VF signs miraculously reappear in the middle of nowhere. Our spirits rise, our speed increases, we note the crop change from rice to tomatoes (with a welcome reduction in mosquitoes), enjoy some off-road riding and then disaster strikes.
We have just pushed our bikes through a muddy quagmire produced by an irrigation pump and started to pedal again on a stony track on the other side when there is an ominous grating and cracking from the rear of my bike. Two seconds later everything is clear, a stone has got stuck in the mud and sheered through the gear mechanism - no more riding.
Picture this - Paul and I in the middle of the Italian countryside, under the burning midday sun, about 8kms from Fiorenzuola d'Arda and 12km from Fidenza, with an unusable bike. We discuss the alternatives and decide that walking onto Fidenza is more productive. We arrive at about five, knackered, pissed off, hot and with a dog who has made it very clear that it is outright cruelty to expect him to walk another step, but here our fortunes begin to look up.
We search out the information centre to ask about hostels etc. and without knowing it stumble on what appears to be an AEVF headquarters. We are given smart new pilgrim passports, a pottery medallion for me to hang around my neck and lots of good advice, the most important being that there is a hostel just down the road.
The Sancutary of the Brothers of Francesco d' Assisi is everything we need. We are taken in, offered a room until Vasco is seen (an unexpected response in view of their patron saint), offered a place for our tent as an alternative, then a shower and food (and a Grappi top up for our coffee - homemade - there is more to the Brothers than meets the eye). Then, as if we had not already been given enough help, one of the Brothers sets about trying to locate a place for us to find the spare part we need for our bike, but of course everything is closed for the holiday.
Later we meet two Italian pilgrims who are also staying here for the night and find out that they have walked the same distance we walked/cycled that day. Any illusions that I have done quite well with my 12km are dispelled, but when they go on to say they usually get up at dawn and walk through to the evening - anything up to 12 hours - I simply decide that they must belong to another section of the human race.
Later still, Paul and I sample the delights of Fidenza. The centre focusses around a wide open square and the Cathedral theatre and medieval tower, all of which must feature highly on any pilgrim visitor's list. We are enchanted and spend the best part of three hours simply enjoying the atmosphere, also noticing that the bicycle is the main form of transport here, which makes everything so much quieter and more pleasant.
This is probably a good point to also mention that we have been repeatedly astounded by the generosity and help we have received since arriving in Italy. Nearly every time we stop to look at the map, someone will come over to us and ask if we need help. Then, even if we are not looking at a map, they will take the trouble to ask anyway. We have been given water, offered places to stay and are generally left with the feeling that we are welcome and people are interested in what we are doing. In England our stay was so brief that it is not fair to make any definitive comments, though the level of knowledge with regard to the VF and its starting point from Canterbury was sadly negligible. In France, we were occasionally offered help if we were looking at a map and people were on the whole friendly too. In Switzerland we experienced nothing negative and may not have been there long enough to test out the degree of help we might or might not have received, but still nothing can compare with Italy - an impression that comes from travelling along the VF twice and experiencing the same both times. Viva Italia!