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!)
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.
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.