Monday, 10 September 2007

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?

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