Category Archives: Canterbury-Rome 2000kms: a cyclist’s tale

CPR Practical Pilgrim Day

It is always a pleasure to get with people who have shared common experiences. The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome, as a group, is still in its infancy. Last Saturday they held only their 4th AGM since foundation, but there is obviously a very strong, committed core of support, with a membership that is growing rapidly. Still a long, long way from the dizzy heights of the success of the Confraternity of St James, but following it in its wake.

The first session, led by Via Francigena veteran Joe Patterson, provided interesting overviews of how to make your pilgrimage happen, covering all those necessary details from what boots to wear to how much luggage to carry. With several recent returnees from the VF in the audience, there was lively debate and many reflections on the ups and downs of long distance travelling.

I had been invited to fill the after-lunch slot with my presentation of a Cyclist’s Tale of my journey from Canterbury to Rome, which I had completed last September. Unlike all my presentations to date (to parish groups, Rotary and cycling clubs) I was standing before an audience who all had some experience of the VF, or were expecting to embark on their journey in the near future. I love telling the story of the journey……………and that is basically what it is………my story (or my tale). If I had been speaking to an audience of a 1000 people who had all travelled exactly the same journey, my own experience would have been unique, and so would everybody else’s. Furthermore, since the cyclist’s perspective (because most pilgrims walk) is rarely put across, I was delighted to be able to promote the use of two wheels to travel along this most ancient route.

Read more about the Confraternity.

Haiti earthquake: one year on

La Catedral

Everybody has heard the news and seen the images. So little has been done in the 12 months since the earthquake. The NGOs are all in place, there is money in the bank to move ahead rapidly with reconstruction, but the whole country is in a state of paralysis. A lack of stable infrastructure and deep-rooted corruption are responsible for the stalemate. Money that is released into the community for reconstruction will disappear into the wrong hands, hence the slow progress.

We are delighted to report that we have been able to send out £6,500 to the Claretians in

Alexis, 12 years old

Port au Prince to help with the reconstruction of their Elementary School. It is but a drop in the ocean in terms of what their actual needs are, but every little will help. And the donations keep trickling in. View this short video about the destruction of the earthquake and what the Claretians are achieving 12 months later:

I have been invited to speak about my cycle pilgrimage to Rome by several groups, which gives me the opportunity to both advertise the delights of travelling along the Via Francigena, but also to highlight the current situation in Haiti and keep their cause alive in people’s  minds. Groups that I will be visiting in the next few months include: Kimbolton Rotary, Ferrar House at Little Gidding, Kimbolton Probus, Rockingham Forest Wheelers, and the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome.

Journeys of discovery

Gerard W Hughes. Kind friends have loaned me their copies of seminal pilgrimage accounts by Gerard Hughes SJ, both of which have harnessed my attention and made me think carefully about the rationale of long-distance journeys to holy places.

In Search of a Way: two journeys of spiritual discovery.  Hughes’ pilgrimage walk to Rome, pre-dates our awareness of the re-established Via Francigena. He started out from Weybridge and calculated his own route across the continent, appealing to the charity of parish priests, convents and monasteries for accommodation when circumstances and weather prevented him from camping. Instead of using sabbatical time for higher or further study, Hughes donned his boots, loaded his rucksack and set off on a venture that turned into two journeys: the physical journey of walking to Rome and the inner journey of his mind and heart as he explored the inner mechanisms of the Catholic Church, his own place within that ‘machine’, and how his own Christian beliefs have guided him towards proactivity in the name of peace and justice in the world.

Walk to Jerusalem. His walk to Jerusalem, from his home town of Skelmorlie in Ayrshire, is also a story of two journeys. Alongside the physical challenge of walking through Holland, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece and then by boat to Haifa, we follow his inner spiritual journey through life with copious flashbacks that occupy his thinking as he walks the highways and byways.

Neither book is a marketing attempt to sell the idea of long-distance walking. Both books dwell on the inevitable mixture of the highs and lows of the physical effort, the challenges of surviving the elements and meeting with both helpful and uncooperative people. The capsules he describes of each day’s journey are an opportunity to create links with his past, people he has met, places he has worked in and projects he has supported. He takes a critical look at the role of the Church in matters of unassailable importance: peace and justice, nuclear disarmament, the role the Church played in Nazi Germany, its attitude to the role of the laity, to mixed marriages, to ecumenism, and much more.

The long-distance traveller, especially the lone traveller, will spend many hours each day absorbed in thought, and the cadence of the journey (walking, cycling, riding horseback) can be a catalyst to reflection, meditation, planning for the future, and generally getting things  in our lives into perspective. Hughes used both journeys to explore his own inner self, and through his ‘mental meanderings’ we gain a privileged insight into who he is and what he stands for.

Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR)

Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR)

This relatively new Confraternity (www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk)was born just four years ago, sprouting as an independent association from the Confraternity of St James (Camino de Santiago). I went to my first meeting with them at the weekend, which took place in the conference room of St James’ Church, Piccadilly, a basement room within earshot of the Christmas markets taking place in the street above. Some of the people assembled there were known to me only as names tagged onto emails or message boards, so it was good to put faces to them. Others came from a variety of backgrounds with a fascinatingly motley interest in the Via Francigena, some as pilgrims, writers and researchers, others who were simply drawn out of curiosity and wanted to learn more.

The focus of interest was much wider than the implications of the VF. We were treated to a fascinating visual account of the meaning of Buddhist pilgrimage, by a couple (Ian Brodick and Rosemary Norton) who had experienced the challenges of the Kailash Kora, a high altitude venture in a remote part of Tibet. Jim Brodie brought us further west and took us along part of St Paul’s journey through modern Turkey, finishing at the site of historic Antioch. Walking the route solo, he vividly focussed on the thrills and spills of venturing into remote areas in search of a destination.

The final session, which had the challenge of re-awakening the audience’s attention after generous servings of wine at lunch, really caught my attention. Ian Holdsworth, an Anglican priest, talked about his sabbatical year when he walked to Santiago de Compostela, and how that ignited his interest in restoring the historical significance of the Camino in this country, and re-establishing a route through middle England connecting several St James’ churches, thus linking Northampton with Portsmouth, where a ferry can be boarded to northern Spain, to resume the journey to Santiago. Check out his webpage here

I liked his distinction between a pilgrimage of journeying (where it is the journey that counts) and a pilgrimage of destination (where the arriving is the key thing), and I applauded his acknowledgement that the most important consequence of pilgrimage is how it changes us as people when we get back to where we started (ie home). In other words, pilgrimage is all about leaving your front door, travelling to a distant place of spiritual or personal significance and returning to your starting point with a new pair of eyes. To quote T.S.Eliot again: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding Quartet).

Radio Cambridgeshire

Some local radio producers scour the local press for leads, which is exactly what Sarah did at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. She came across the aforementioned items in the Huntspost and rang me to invite me to feature on their early Sunday morning programme, which was generally devoted to topics connected with Faith and Ethics. The last time I had been interviewed by local radio was after my ride to Santiago de Compostela in 1993, but that had been conducted by telephone. This time I was invited to sit in a studio, surrounded by the infinite gadgetry that produces the exquisitely programmed sequences of interviews and music that our domestic radios so effortlessly emit. Kevin was my expert host, and he deftly asked several good questions to allow me to expand a little on my pilgrimage experience.

“Tell us about the situation in Haiti”……..”and the money you have raised for the Claretians”………”What were the high points of your cycling experience?”………”Did you have any punctures?”………….”How did your body hold out?”……………..”Is the money earmarked for a specific project?”.

Afterwards, as you would expect, instead of focusing on the things I had been able to say, I thought about all the things I had wanted to say but never got the chance. But that’s the nature of the beast……………

Back home again!

Arriving back home and settling back into domesticity always requires some adjustment after such a venture. Even harder if you spend 80-90 days walking the route, and the rhythms of the daily schedule are much more ingrained in your psyche.

My journey has roused some local interest, especially in the press, and this has led to an invitation by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to feature on their Sunday morning programme (October 17th) at 8.20am. I see this as a great opportunity to spread the word about the Via Francigena, and help promote it as one of the great European journeys where you can enjoy a sense of community as you travel along and associate with other pilgrims.

And you don’t have to do it as a single journey, from Canterbury to Rome. Why not try sections, as time permits. Everybody is subject to myriad commitments, so why not cherry-pick a couple of especially interesting sections and do them when you can? To qualify for the Testimonium at the end, walkers only need to complete 100kms, and cyclists 200kms. This could easily be completed in a week, allowing a couple of days to enjoy Rome.

Postscript 3: last day in Rome

The Testimonium again! Have you ever been frustrated by bureaucracy? Well, the Vatican has plenty of it, and lots to spare! I arrived at St Peter’s at 9am, made my way to the pilgrim office, and Don Bruno Vercesi took me (along with Mario, a Fr Canadian pilgrim) to an inner office, questioned us about our journeys, filled in a big book with our details (I am pilgrim no. 2006 to be registered), got us to write summaries of our experiences, then asked us to return at 11.15am. We did, only to be joined by 5 Italians and three young Germans, then we were given a lecture tour of parts of the crypt that tourists don’t get to see, followed by a short service in an Irish chapel……………. At 12.30 we came out brandishing our testimonia! Three and a half hours later! In ten years time, what if a hundred pilgrims turn up daily at the office? What then?

The long wait gave Mario and me the opportunity to climb the 500+ steps to the top of the cupola of the Basilica, and admire the exquisite symmetry of the entire Vatican. The climb is arduous but worth it (or you can pay a few euros more and take a lift part-way). The Vatican was built to demonstrate the power of the church, at a time when popes enjoyed extensive political, as well as religious, influence. That demonstration of power still attracts millions of visitors every year.

Curiously, during the concluding service of prayers and readings, two of the German lads confessed they weren’t Christians. Well, that got Don Bruno’s missionary spirit into overdrive, but I could see that his ministrations were falling on deaf ears, but the lads smiled generously and thanked him for his advice.

Lunch with the Marists. My brother, Gerard, is a Marist in the UK, so he provided me with an introduction and I was kindly invited to lunch at their General Curia by their Fr General, John Hannon. Having been held up by the bureaucracy that morning, I had to walk smartly to an unfamiliar part of the city, and find where the house was. Lunch was excellent, and it gave me the opportunity to meet members of the order from other parts of the world.

A stroll through the city. Rather than head straight back to base, I decided to walk across the city and take in

many of the well-known sights on this my last day. Rome at any time of the year is busy with tourists, but late

summer is an especially busy time. Large groups are marched along by their leaders, all plugged into their audio

systems, listening to their guides as they walk along. You don’t hear any guides shouting to be heard by their

groups, and this is particularly pleasant to other passers-by who don’t want to hear their commentaries.

But amidst all this beauty and affluence, the downtrodden will make their way and hope to feed off the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. Though there is a great deal of well-rehearsed drama in the way the poor beg, it is not easy to pass them by and ignore them.

I also popped into  the Pantheon and looked inside to see if I could get myself a burger at McDonald’s. Curiously, I couldn’t find it!

Homeward bound. Tomorrow I have to admit to myself that the journey is really over when I climb on the Ryanair flight back to Stansted. The bike is boxed up in a fashion, more to protect other people’s luggage than to protect the bike. And where is the sense in this? My ticket cost me 9 euros, and the bike has cost 40 euros. The clear message is that people are discountable, but sports equipment isn’t.

See you up the road in the UK!!

Postscript 2: Rome

All roads lead to Rome? Whether or not they do, when you get here you discover a city of eternal surprises. Not only do you have to negotiate the layers of history of this place (literally one layer on top of another), but around every corner you could be startled by something. I visited the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and walked in on the photo shoot of a wedding, presumably of a lorry driver, because there was a decorated truck in the background. Inside the church I discovered an exhibition on Galileo, dwelling on his discoveries within the fields of pendulums and gravity, but also learned that Italy once had its own meridian, totally independent of the Greenwich meridian. After all, I suppose Italy, and Rome in particular, were the centre of an important empire in its day.

On the underground shortly afterwards, I heard a woman praying loudly at the end of the carriage. When I looked, I saw a woman carrying an infant and going the length of the train begging. Prayers, presumably, were to soften the hearts of the passengers (but I saw no-one making an offering).

Seven pilgrims churches. There are seven major churches, mostly basilicas, that the medieval pilgrim would visit in order to receive the full spiritual benefit of their journey. Two that I visited were enormous structures, cavernous in their interiors, and heavily laden with guilt ceilings and wall mosaics. They both made me stop and think about the sheer wealth enjoyed by the church in former times. This inevitably tempers the enthusiasm and sense of awe.

Santa Maria Maggiore is held by many to be the most beautiful church in Rome. Externally not impressive, but once you step inside the visual sense is stormed by the ornate ceiling, the mosaics and the baldachinno over the altar. It is a huge stage for the performance of the liturgy.

San Paolo outside the walls. A Basilica built over the burial place of St Paul, and displaying the nine-linked chain that was said to have chained Paul when he was prisoner, the mosaic behind the main altar is a wonderful distraction while you are listening to the Gregorian chant of the high mass.

The pilgrim’s passport. On the Camino de Santiago, the passport is important and influential. It not only proves the nature of your journey, but brings with it some privileges in terms of entry to places (including municipal swimming pools) and accommodation. The VF passport has been very useful in terms of accommodation, and sometimes food, but never did it provide free or reduced entry to museums and the like. I am sure time will make a difference, and when the flow of pilgrims steadily increases, local authorities along the route will revise their thinking. My first stamp was added at my own parish church at Buckden, and the last at the Vatican.

Postscript 1 Rome

The Testimonium. It was time to do battle with the crowds in St Peter’s Square and get into the Basilica and find the obscurely located office of Don Bruno Vercesi, the priest in charge of dispensing the official Vatican stamp on your pilgrim’s passport and rewarding you with the Testimonium of completion of the VF. Brandishing my pilgrim’s passport, I dared to ignore all the long queues and rapidly made my way into the heart of the Basilica. I discovered how recondite this office was because several of the security staff were unsure as to its whereabouts. I forged my way into the sacristy, ignoring ‘no entry’ signs until I was stopped by security. I held out my passport to him and his attitude changed immediately. He ushered me into the innermost recess of the sacristy where I was met by the man in charge (but not Don Bruno, who could dispense the Testimonium). I was told that he was only available Monday-Friday, and that I should return on Monday. Of course, I protested, and tried to insist that he could dispense it……but I knew he was going to win. So I got the stamp, but will have to return on Monday.

The road less travelled? The VF, in comparison with the route to Santiago de Compostela, may be the road less travelled, but it is amazing how VF travellers manage to locate each other. The group of four UK cyclists that I first met in Piacenza crossing a piazza, I met several times en route, once we stayed in the same hostel, and once they saw my name in the visitor’s book of a hostel I had just left. Now, amidst the thousands of tourists milling around St Peter’s, apparently they bet each other a beer on who would see me first. I think it was Mike who will be drinking several free beers tonight, paid for by his friends Laurent, Nick and Tim. You can’t see Tim in this photo, because he is outside St Peter’s looking after the bikes!

Did you know? There is a Jacobite monument in St Peter’s dedicated to the Stuarts, who used Rome as their home in exile. The family was honoured with this distinction.

Teaching English to the Italians? Would you recommend that Italians should learn the English spoken by this gentleman? Or is it, now that he has lost his place in the England team, that he’s having to sell his time at 8euros an hour to make ends meet?

Pilgrimage in the modern world. I know what I am about to say may be controversial, but it might get people thinking. In the Catholic world places like Fatima and Lourdes are much visited shrines, and people talk about going ‘on pilgrimage’ to these places. Given that most get there by plane, train or coach, this is not ‘pilgrimage’ really, it should be called ‘paying a visit to’ a shrine. Now, that is not to devalue the experience, but just to correct the use of language.

However, I also want to ‘correct’ our idea of the medieval notion of pilgrimage. Although I am a committed Christian, I do believe that the major religions of this world have ‘hijacked’ the notion of pilgrimage, and made it fit their own purposes for spiritual advancement. In the Christian world, the 13th and 14th centuries were notorious for this promotion and, amongst many things, the sale of indulgences did much to discredit the value of the journey. The basic meaning of the term ‘pilgrim’ is one who ‘wanders, travels or journeys to a destination’, and in medieval times that was an arduous undertaking usually done on foot. People travel the ancient ways for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily religious ones. Pilgrimage should be seen as a journey with a purpose, and that purpose could be anything. I’ve met people trying to resolve personal situations (marriage, family, friendships), celebrating coming through an illness or serious operation, or simply wanting personal time with their own thoughts as they travel along. One Dutch pilgrim I met, on the way to Santiago, had no belief whatsoever in the hereafter, and when I asked him “why to Santiago?” his response was illuminating: “well, any destination will do, it’s the journey that counts”.

And that, for me, is the nature of ‘pilgrimage’. Arriving in Rome was an exciting conclusion, but the journey was the thing that really counted: what I learned about myself, disconnecting from the ordinary things of life, and the things I learned from those I encountered on the journey. The journey is what you make of it yourself. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado included the following lines in a famous poem: “Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, nada más; caminante no hay camino, se hace el camino al andar” (Traveller, the road is made up of your own footprints, nothing else. Traveller, there is no road ahead, you make the road as you go along). And closer to home, in the poem Little Gidding, T.S.Eliot wrote these famous lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, And the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time”.

For me, that is the very essence of ‘pilgrimage’. Neither poet even mentioned the term ‘pilgrimage’, but they understood it. If, after a long journey like a pilgrimage, you begin to see your own everyday life with new eyes, then your journey has been a success. In some small way, your life will be changed forever.

Haiti. Once again, thank you to all who have donated to the re-building of the Claretian school in Port-au-Prince. Fr Anistus is immensely appreciative, and the money is going to an extremely deserving cause.

Day 20 Sutri to Rome! 40m (60km)

Breakfast was a very simple affair, left on a table in a small room but…… we heard a door close quietly on the other side of the grille, and then the sweetest sounding plain chant came from their community matins that made the bread and marmalade that little bit more special.

Before leaving Sutri we had to seek out the noted necropolis and amphitheatre. An amazing system of caves had originally been used for burying the dead, but through the centuries had been used for a variety of other reasons, including the storage of agricultural equipment. And the amphitheatre, though small, had obviously provided entertainment through generations, with its underground tunnels probably serving as holding areas for animals and even gladiators.

Lake Bracchiano. We decided to leave the busy approach road into Rome, and headed off at a tangent, adding more miles, but taking us away from the city-bound traffic, and in the direction of the beautiful Lake Bracchiano. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a suitable bathing area to cool off before heading into the morass of Rome traffic. It was going to be a difficult entry into the city, but Filipe’s GPS was the answer, to guide us directly to the Vatican. And it did!

The end of the journey. We not only cycled right into the centre of Rome (unscathed!) but we were able to cycle right into the heart of the great piazza of St Peter’s Square. It is one of the most perfect pieces of ‘environmental development’ you could ever find, and there isn’t a better place to finish a long pilgrimage than that.

The Pope. You’ve probably noticed the Pope is in the UK this very minute. Well, I’d like to ask his social secretary why his visit was planned for the 16-19th? Didn’t he know I’d be expecting to be invited to a nice cup of tea and a pat on the back? Hmmm…….

La Storta. One of the places we passed by today was the scene where St Ignatius had a vision, which resulted in the founding of the Jesuits, one of the most influential religious orders in the Church. Well, the very first passer-by we spoke to in St Peter’s Square just happened to be an American Jesuit, and he was fascinated by our story of the Via Francigena.

Things that bear a message. We have all had experiences that seemed to have encapsulated a message of importance. Well, what do you make of this one? My cycle computer worked perfectly right to the end. But as I left the Vatican, I noticed the cable had snapped and it was locked onto the final mileage…………….. Was this really the end of the journey?

The Claretians in Rome. Having said goodbye to Filipe, who will continue his journey to Jerusalem, I headed to the north of the city seeking out the General Curia of the Claretian Missionaries, and there I had a warm welcome from Fr Marcos, the Superior, given food and a room, and here I will stay (not riding my bike!) for the next few days finding my land legs once again.

Afterthought. Receiving the following message from Haiti has made this journey so much more worthwhile:

Hi Frank,
I am a catholic missionary priest from Nigeria working in Haiti since 2000. Fr. Chris Newmann, in your parish, told me about you and the efforts you are making to help Haiti after the terrible earthquake. May God bless you. You represent the many nice people we still have in the world, people who do not remain indifferent in the face of sufferings and pains. May your bicycle keep you riding till you get to your set objective. Hope to see you when you get to Haiti. Good luck and God bless you.
Father Anistus Chima, CMF.
Final statistics: Distance 1286 miles/2065kms

Time taken (excluding rest periods): 18 days from home/16 days from Canterbury.

 

Day 19: Radicofani to Sutri: 73m(117kms)

Total to date: 1246m(2005kms)

Early morning mist. Or was it cloud? As we prepared to set off together, we climbed up to the highest point of the village, to the castle (which was closed!) but we were rewarded with amazing views over the countryside. The level of cloud was beneath us, giving a curious perspective to everything we looked down on.

 

Natural phenomena. Sometimes, something catches my eye and I brake hard, pull over and get out the camera. This can be a little risky on a busy road. Here you see a field full  of spider’s webs glistening in the morning sunlight, and a roadside post covered with snails. Fascinating.

Bolsena Cathedral. Bolsena is situated next to a huge lake of the same name. A great inland site for many water-sports, including swimming. But the Cathedral (Il Duomo) caught my attention in particular. You could see three layers of history in its construction: the catacombs of the 4th century, the medieval parts and then those added in the 17th century. But it all blended together extremely well.

 

The great descent. From a 1000m above sea level, we had a great descent first thing in the morning, but we had to descend through the cloud, and visibility was down to a few metres, especially if you were wearing glasses! I enjoyed the coolness before the heat of the day set in. Filipe, on the other hand, (like a butterfly) needs sun and heat to get himself going, so didn’t enjoy the descent so much.

Sutri. As I entered the town walls, I encountered the place I was looking for: a Carmelite Convent that provided beds for pilgrims. What I hadn’t bargained on was the fact it was an enclosed order, and all communication took place through a grille, and passports and money were handed over through a covered turntable. Our rooms were located in a separate building, and gave us easy access to the town which, like Lucca, was celebrating its patronale. (And we thought the music was to celebrate our arrival!)

 

Day 18 afternoon: Siena to Radicofani 48m(75km)

Total so far: 1173miles (1888kms)

This was the very first sign I saw pointing the way to Rome. Could I already hear the notoriously heavy traffic of the capital?

Afternoon route. This was to take me across the southern reaches of Tuscany, and the landscape was changing noticeably: lush vineyards were changing to the dark browns of the recently ploughed trees, and there was the constant drone of agricultural machinery. But it was a great surprise, and pleasure, to meet up with Filipe again, and he invited me to join him on the street terrace of a cafe. He is quietly convincing me of the virtues of a GPS on such journeys. His seems to keep him securely on the right track (most of the time!)

Radicofani. Although Filipe and I (both being independent spirits) didn’t stick together on the road, we made arrangements to meet at the end of the day. Getting to Radicofani required serious commitment. At the end of the day, as the sun was setting, I was faced with an 8km climb that would take me to just under 1000m above sea level. But the ospedale that awaited me, specially converted for pilgrims like myself, was superb. A lady who lived in this mountain top village showed me where everything was, including the food and drink, and simply suggested I might leave a small donation when I left. The interior of this cottage was modern and very clean, in fact, a bit too good for dirty walkers and cyclists like myself.

Supper. Filipe arrived as it was getting dark and, along with a Corsican walker, we prepared the biggest pan of pasta you could imagine, and a large bottle of vino rosso to go with it. Bliss! The ospedale obviously welcomed a lot of pilgrims who were journeying from Rome to Santiago (or vice versa) as evidenced by the many wall-hangings bearing the characteristic scallop-shell.

 

Day 18 Half day rest in Siena

Filipe. First let me tell you about my encounter with Filipe. We were both consigned to sleeping on couches in Lucca YH, which as you can see, was not exactly Spartan. The couches converted into big sofa beds! Anyway, Filipe is from Lisbon, has just completed his Ph.D. in Physics and has a 3 month wait before his viva and the result of his research, so he took off on his bike. First heading to Belém, then Fatima and  Santiago, then he followed the coastal route to France, going via Lourdes and across to Italy. He is picking up the VF in Lucca to Rome, then will take a boat over to Croatia and make his way to Turkey, then Cyprus, and finally over to Jerusalem. What a way to kill time waiting for your research results! Although we intended to cycle together, our own independent spirits separated us, but I am sure we will meet up again before Rome. I unkindly took this photo just after he had woken up, but he still managed a smile! He very politely asked my age, and when I told him, he said his father was the same age as me, but he could never imagine him doing what we are doing. Hmm…….

Siena. Every place I stop at makes me feel I’ve reached a high spot of the journey……until the next place, that is. Siena is an unbelievable city. Yet another walled community, as soon as you enter the walled historical part you are transported into another era. It has one of the most amazing Piazzas I have ever seen. People sit around on the bricked slopes, it is encircled by bar terraces and restaurants, the arena is used for horse-racing (of a peculiar Sienese style) and in the past, had been a public hanging area and bullfighting ring. This is where life happened! The Sienese wander their narrow, medieval streets which are virtually traffic-free; even I felt a bit awkward pushing a bicycle. In the Tuscan league table, Siena will always play second fiddle to Florence, but it is stunning. Put it on your list for future reference.

A few people I met at Caritas.

Paul from Manchester, has been walking the highways and byways for many years, several times to Santiago, and now he’s heading off to Rome. It became evident he was resolving a few personal issues: trying to overcome a chronic state of depression and desperately trying to kick the smoking habit. He has so little money that he depends entirely on charities like Caritas to keep body and soul together.

Maria is from Hungary and, though not walking/cycling the VF, she is following it, doing an Art History project on the way. She speaks Italian, German and a bit of French, so our communication was a curious mixture of Italian and French. And it seemed to work!

Suora Ginetta is the sister in charge of looking after the pilgrims and feeding those who live on the streets. They open their house every lunchtime to the lonely and homeless, and in the evening they take in pilgrims and travellers. I told her she had a very Irish face, and she laughed. As you can see, she has a very smiley presence. A veritable ‘Mother Teresa’ of Siena.

Mario is one of the several volunteers who help out at Caritas. He was born in the US, of a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother, and his working languages include English, Spanish, Italian and German. Typical of such volunteers, he went out his way to find an internet cafe, camera shop and to make me feel at home. Nothing was too much trouble.

 

Day 17 Lucca to Siena 77m (124km)

Lucca is a little known jewel in the north of Italy. A walled city that has streets that are a joy to wander through, with little traffic. Although I may be accused of repeating myself, serendipity muscled in yet again. My stay in Lucca just happened to coincide with their annual celebration of the Santa Croce (Holy Cross) which included a procession through the streets of all their confraternities and dignitaries, including a cardinal. The streets were all illuminated, buildings bedecked with thousands of candles, and in the Duomo (Cathedral) their was a short choral concert, followed by a firework display, which we viewed from the walls of the town. Quite spectacular and totally unexpected.

This morning I decided to cycle the streets of Lucca and take in the medieval environment before offices and shops opened for business. When I decided to begin the day’s route, I found myself literally  ‘lost in Lucca’. The streets were like a maze, and by following the one-way system, I had hoped to find a way out, but it took some time. Once on the open road, I had the pedals spinning for a couple of hours in the direction of Siena.

San Gimignano. This beautiful town lay on the route to Siena, but there was some serious climbing to get to it (up to 350metres). It would seem that most interesting towns in the area were built as fortress communities, so inaccessibility was a key part of their planning. Unlike Lucca, San Gimignano is a famous and much-visited jewel in northern Italy. The streets were packed with day visitors, but the effort to climb up to it was certainly worth it. Using my pilgrim passport, I tried to ‘blag’ my way into a few museums for free, but they were unsympathetic. They wouldn’t let me into the Cathedral because my cycling shoes (which do have metal cleats embedded in the soles) might damage the wooden floors. That I understood, but when I offered to take them off, I was still barred, because it would be disrespectful to enter in my stockinged feet! There are some situations that simply have no solution.

Road to Siena Being well into the Appenines, and following them in a southerly direction, the terrain is going to be ‘lumpy’, and it certainly was on the road to Siena. The huge sting in the tail were the final kms into town, which were (yet again!) all uphill. I had few reserves at 6pm so it was a mighty struggle.

Caritas. The first place I called at was a Caritas charity run by an order of nuns, and they welcomed me in with open arms, showed me to an eight-bedded room and provided an astonishing supper……. all free of charge! In future years my memories of this trip will dwell especially on the unquestioning kindness of so many people.

 

 

Day 16 Terrarosa to Lucca 61m (97km)

Taking leave of my Castle! Surprisingly, despite the cavernous nature of my surroundings, I slept soundly, but woke early, so made preparations for a pre-dawn start. I had to think carefully about the routine of closing down this huge place, and leaving the key at the appointed place. As I pulled the great wrought iron gates to, my mind couldn’t grasp that I had been the sole occupier that night. And in case there is any dispute, you have all witnessed where I put the key: in the hole in the wall!

Early morning mist. As I set off the early morning mist had not lifted, so it was even darker than expected, and much colder. This called for a large cafe americano and two of the best pastries I’ve tasted on this trip. It was initially downhill almost all the way to the coast. Then I came across this lone lady, heavily laden with backpack and walking poles, and I knew this was another VF pilgrim. Gabriela is Italian from Milano, and had started her trek 11 days ago in Milano, and is making her way to Rome. It takes a lot of courage to walk those distances on your own.

 

 

Coastal road. Though not strictly on the VF, I decided to get off the busy roads and head down to the coastal road that runs along the several marinas. Delightful road, but views of the beaches and sea were limited by the fact that almost 99% of the coast is owned by hotel and restaurant businesses, and you have to pay to use the beach. I waited until I had to head off inland before plunging down to a free beach and enjoying a 10 minute swim in the Med. At 25C it seemed that the weather was too cold for most Italians to be taking the plunge!

As if by retribution! Having had no mechanicals throughout the trip thus far, today was a little different. Perhaps in retribution for leaving the VF route for 20 miles, I was awarded with not one, but two punctures! Having fixed the first, I went to ‘celebrate’ by having a beer at a beach bar, and when I came out, the same puncture had come undone in the heat of the sun. I should have known that would happen!

Foreign keypads. It’s only when you travel from country to country using internet cafes, that you get to know how different foreign keypads can be. Hurrah for the Italians! Theirs are almost identical to ours. The French keypad has several letters and symbols ‘out of place’, and finding how to activate the @ and the / (and many others) can be trying when you are paying for access and you are in a hurry. Then the Swiss keypads: well, I imagined that travelling through the French-speaking part, it would be the same as France, but no! La Suisse is a country of 4 official languages, so the keypads cater for all of them. That makes it very, very complicated for a bear of little brain like myself.

No more climbing? Wishful thinking, I’m afraid. One 12% climb was unplanned because I went off route, and the last climb of the day took me back into the Appenines towards the beautiful town of Lucca, which I will explore tomorrow. But as I arrived in town, an almighty storm kicked up……but fortunately it just missed me. Tonight, with the Youth Hostel full to bursting, I’ve been offered one of their couches, which is actually quite a luxurious alternative.

And before I go, I was much amused at this sign, and wondered what they might serve on their menu. Post suggestions in “Comments” at the bottom of this message. Here’s one to get the ball rolling. this is a genuine recipe:

Eggs in Purgatory
Serves 2-4

– 1 28 ounce can of tomatoes (I used fire roasted, but you can use your favorite)
– 4 large fresh eggs
– 3 cloves garlic, sliced
– 1-2 Teaspoons red pepper flakes (depending on how hot you want it)
– 1 Cup water or stock of your choice
– 3 Tablespoons olive oil
– Fresh basil, chiffonade
– 4 thick slices toast
– Salt and pepper

Day 15+1 Terrarossa Castle

Terrarossa Castle

I just have to add an extra page on this. That word ‘serendipity’ keeps emerging. After over 70 miles of riding, very hot and sticky, I needed a rest. This Castle caught my attention, so I stopped, checked the information, the big iron gate was open, so I went in (as you do). In my very broken Italian, I asked how much entry was, and the young warden said they were closed because of repairs. Hmm, I thought, but the gate was open and he welcomed me in……

So I asked if I could use one of his computers, and he was delighted to say yes. Then he asked me if I was looking for a bed, so he made a couple of suggestions. As I was busy on the computer, he suddenly said “Would you like to stay here?”. Now ‘here’ means this huge fortified castle with massive rooms and staircases, and built to keep the enemy out………or the prisoners in! I got excited about this offer, but then discovered he was going to give me the key and I would be on my ownsome for the night. He showed me a few basics on how to manage a castle, gave me the key to the great padlock on the iron gate, and instructed me to lock myself in for the night!

Now I will be gone early tomorrow, so who do I give the key to? He showed me to a little office outside the castle walls, and said if there is no one there when you leave, can you put it in this hole in the wall (he points to where the cement has fallen out between two stones above a window).

So, I write these few words when I have not only got a computer (or four) to myself, but also this huge (and I do mean huge, medieval) castle as well.

I have been wondering what might be the single most unforgettable moment on this journey………………I suspect tonight, as I pretend to be the 16th century Marquis Fabrizio Malaspina (who built this place) will be in hot contention!

If you pray, say one for me.

 

Day 15:Fidenza to Aulla 74m (120km)

Got up at 6am (still dark) and out by 7am as sun was rising. It is so delightful riding in the coolness of the morning. Last  night, the Polish parish priest who is looked after by his parents, spoilt me. They provided me with food and wine, with no expectation of payment.

Passo della Cissa This climb dominated the day’s journey, landing right in the middle of the route. Though not in the same category as the Gd St Bernard, the climbing begins (seriously) 36km (23m) from the top. So that occupied about three hours, taking photos on the way up, and meeting a few very interesting VF pilgrims.

This Dutch couple (I hope they will be in touch to remind me of their names) started their trek a few days ago to complete the final 600kms to Rome (she had done stages of the route before). Charming people and I hope to meet them again. (Delighted to say they got back in touch with me on January 6th 2011 and they are called Peter Lammers and Stans Ligthart. They finished their pilgrimage on the October 29th).

This German gentleman had taken up long-distance cycling only 4  years ago, and has completed the route to Santiago, and has started the VF in  Milan.He said he used to weigh 86kilos and is now down to 70. No wonder! If you look carefully behind him, he is towing a trailer.

Motor bikers I had been warned the Passo della Cissa was a favourite climb for bikers from Parma. They always “hunt in packs” (usually of six or more) and they race up behind you and tear around the corners. They stop at their favourite watering hole and stand around admiring each others’ bikes and, yes, they are all men! All in their mid-forties and above and this is obviously their mid-life rejuvenation activity. However, some do come to grief, as you’ll see here.

An invention needed. Any volunteers? When I’m climbing big mountains, I always begin wondering how I can save weight. For some a few pounds of body-weight would help! But then I got wondering…….My drinking water (1.5ltrs) weighs about 1.5kilos, and I have both bottles full before beginning a climb. What if someone developed weightless water (or its equivalent)? There would be a good market for it amongst cyclists and walkers.

Some views from the climb today.

Castle accommodation I am using a computer at the Castle of Terrarossa, and have just been informed by the warden that I can stay the night! In fact, he will give me the key and I will have this enormous place all to myself. My first question, of course, was to ask if there are any ghosts! He assures me there aren’t any………………………….

 


Day 14 Pavia-Fidenza 67m(107km)

A day of meeting other pilgrims

A Finn walking from Vercelli to Rome (c 700kms). Met him on the outskirts of Pavia, early in the morning. Note his use of Nordic walking poles.

And 4 cyclists from the UK who had started from Martigny in Switzerland and will be cycling the 1000kms to Rome. I was to meet them several times en route to Rome, and finally in the St Peter’s Basilica, midst the thousands of visitors elbowing their way around th e monuments.

Followed Po valley most of the day to end up staying the night in this parish hostel where Thomas a Beckett stayed in 1167.  The buildings and location reminded me so much of Little Gidding in Cambrigeshire, a place of spiritual seclusion founded by Nicholas Ferrar, and later receiving the accolade of T.S.Eliot in his Fourth Quartet.

Piacenza is one of the most beautiful towns I’ve seen. It’s main Piazza is the site of the Palazzo Gotico and the bronze statues of former rulers of the land are stunning.

Fidenza where I stayed the night, has a statue of St Peter on the façade of the cathedral, pointing the way to Rome (well, they say he’s pointing!). Funny, I set off in a completely different direction!

Seeing ourselves as others see us? Well not quite. The other day, I thought I was being followed by another cyclist, and when I looked around, it was my own shadow trying to overtake me! So I had to take a few profiles of myself as the sun moved around. You may say I look like the shadow of my former self.

Two other reflections. I’ve cycled in Italy on several occasions, but the first time I saw elegant looking black women standing by the roadside out in the country, it took me a little while to work out they were prostitutes. Today, I discovered they are not always black women.

In Piacenza, I witnessed an unwholesome scene of what appeared to be racist abuse. An Italian couple, father holding baby, were vociferously abusing a couple of black Africans. I didn’t need a translator to understand most of the expletives. And, of course, the baby was screaming at the same time.

Day 13 Ivrea-Pavia 83m(132km)

Now in the heat of the Lombardy plains, where mosquitoes thrive and rice grows in abundance (the land of risottos?). Like the Fens, the roads are flat, straight and endless, but with a tail wind, progress is very brisk. Having to stop and rest during midday heat!

Italian tourist offices are a devil to find! In Vercelli, Mortara and Pavia, I struggled to find them. Not signposted (or very poorly signposted), and most people don’t even know if they exist in their own town. I asked a lady in a Town Hall office to use her stamp for my VF passport, and she flatly refused, saying she couldn’t! Not allowed she insisted! Oh well……. So I called at this Abbey on the way out of town, disturbing a priest during his siesta, and he gave me a glorious-looking stamp!

Cyclists’ fare The first time I’ve stopped for  a sit-down lunch during the day, and look what I had. Ignore the beer, that must have been someone else’s, but a good plate of pasta puts miles back into  the legs!

Plight in Pavia After a long day in the saddle, hot, tired and hungry, I struggled to find a bed in Pavia. But as so often happens, a small group took pity on me and offered to phone around for me, found a place at the station hotel, and one of them  guided me on his vespa all the way there. He obviously wasn’t a cyclist. He sped ahead expecting me to tuck in behind and pace him.

The land of castles. I understand this area was heavily protected by jealous rulers who built huge fortified castles, designed to intimidate. Just like this one.

And there are also several bridges that have BC dates, beautifully preserved and bedecked with flowers.They catch the eye as you pass by.

 

Day 12 Gd St Bernard-Ivrea 70m(112km)

Long fast descent from Gd St Bernard pass, then followed Aosta Valley downstream for 50m! A dream descent. Snow-covered mountains recede into the distance behind me, and ahead beckons the fertile plain either side of the river Po, famous for their rice fields.  Discovered many Roman remains, some dated BC. Rome getting closer by the hour.

Aosta valley Carving its way between the alpine peaks both left and right, the valley descends following the Dora Baltea river. Nice to be going in the same direction as the current. As you know, rivers can’t flow uphill!

Ostello in Ivrea Along the Italian section of the VF, there are many dedicated hostels being established for pilgrims. If the VF develops like the Camino de Santiago, in 10-20 years time, there could be thousands travelling the route. In Tourist Information office in Fidenza, they took my photo (yes of me!) for possible inclusion in their promotional literature. After a long day in the saddle, I looked especially scruffy, but then…………….that’s what pilgrims should look like………. But this ostello in Ivrea came with its own fig trees!

And being part of a canoe club, I had the sound of the canoe-rapids’ rushing water right outside my window.  Every time I woke up in the night, the sound of running water drove me to the bathroom………or was it just an older man’s problem?

 

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