Departure day is here with an early start. The sky is a sharp blue. I put on my padded tights trying to “be like water” as Bruce Lee, the karate guru, once advised. He is known to have said “water can flow, but it can also crash”.
Crashing is my biggest concern. Nevertheless, I hoist up my panniers (saddle bags) onto the big black bike. They seem surprisingly heavy, after whittling down my list to the absolute bare minimum.
“Have you checked the tires?” Simon asks.
“Umm, no, I forgot to buy a pump!”
He checks them for me and suggests we go for a cappuccino at the coffee bar just fifty meters from our house. I feel quite annoyed at the thought of stopping for coffee so soon, but he insists. I’m flowing with adrenaline and stopping now would feel like crashing.
The bike is dreadfully heavy to push up our steep cobbled street. According to the guidebook specs it weighs 23 kilograms, and my panniers weigh at least 18 kilograms, possibly more. Added together that is almost as much as my total body weight.
It’s a glum struggle to the caffè. Simon zooms up the hill on his ‘normal’ bike, his panniers gleaming yellow like boosters.
“SURPRISE!” A bunch of friends have come to see us off! All gathered around a table at the far corner of the Wunderkaffe. So good to see their positive smiles. They give me sweet going-away gifts of energy bars and homemade Limoncello, which I squeeze into my panniers.
With a churning tummy full of cappuccino I do my best to set off properly. No crashing to the ground in front of the send-off crowd.
As soon as we get around the corner my body starts to shut down. Teetering terribly I disembark and stand holding up the heavy bicycle at a dangerous angle, feet frozen to the ground like a rabbit. Is this an adrenaline override, or a lack of courage?
Simon circles back to see what has happened and says with exasperation “Come on Sweetie, at least let us get to Rome!”
Sometimes my husband can be quite ruthless.
We have ridden this route many times, downhill all the way to the Colosseum, along the dead straight Roman road. The ancient Appia Antica or Appian way in English. I should be feeling quite content that my dream is coming true.
This good old road is paved with enormous blue-black basalt flagstones. Many of them have been carried away to build other structures and some have been haphazardly re-implanted which makes the bike buck. “How will you ever reach Oslo on a bike? Silly girl” says an inner voice. The sky glitters on a sorry little tear of self pity.
We melt into a classical landscape, pedalling between the low crumbling stone walls and tombs. Pieces of sculptured marble lie on the verge. The beauty of the campagna around Rome is wholly poetic if you look past the litter and broken fences. Cicada’s trill in the high dark foliage of the Roman Pines. Cyprus trees stand stiffly bottle-green, bushy pink oleanders and swathes of poppies flop over in the heat. The raw smell of wet sheep wafts over us. A shepherd sits with his crook propped against a broken block of marble tomb.
I’m began to feel carried away with the romance of it all. It would be hard to find a more auspicious start to a bike ride. I’m thawing out and beginning to flow like water.
Spring turned to summer in a matter of hours as we ride through the lovely Appia Antica Regional Park. Flowers have gone berserk. Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, St. Peter and St. Paul are just a few of the famous characters who used this road. Which has not needed much maintenance since 312 BC.
Suddenly I’m flying through the air, something has catapulted me sideways. I dive, do my best shoulder roll, jump up onto my feet instantly and look nonchalantly around to see if anyone noticed. Nettles sting me through the lycra. There is a rock in the path, hidden under the stooping grass. My pedal obviously hit down on it and caused the crash. The panniers have fallen off, and it takes me a few minutes of fumbling with shaky hands to clip them back onto the carrier. I do a mad little hop to get back up on the bike and race after Simon. He didn’t notice.
We pass through the catacomb gardens, along a lovely avenue of old Cyprus trees, laurel hedges and the heavy fragrance of grape hyacinths. Gnarled olive trees shimmer a vibrant silvery green.
Entering Rome via the gate of Saint Sebastian, we go cobbling smack into the overcrowded streets, negotiating right-of-way with bus drivers by giving them a meaningful glance of intention as we weave between them. This is how the city moves – by domination.
Passing a long queue of tourists outside the Bocca della Verità – Mouth of Truth – which is said to bite off the hands of liars. The story is told in the film ‘A Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
Something we cannot avoid in the city center is a visit to the old Gelateria Giolitti, the world famous ice-cream parlour. Sour cherry ‘viscole’ is Simon’s absolute favourite, never to be deviated from, whereas I deviate between the nut flavours – two balls of Nocciola (hazelnut) or mandorla (almond) with a scoop of café.
There is an art to ordering gelato in Italy, one must pay your money first, then queue, all the while straining your neck over eager shoulders to glimpse the enormous array of choices. When the server claps his eyes on you, hand him your receipt and quickly shout your preferred cup or cone size and flavours. He’ll give you a generous scoop of each and ask if you desire ‘panna’ (cream) on top. Today the answer is yes.
No sitting down at the elegant round tables in the 50’s style salon. That incurs an extra fee, and anyway we can’t leave our fully loaded bikes standing outside. We shuffle out to join the crowd of fellow gelato lickers. We all stand together concentrating on the ambrosial experience.
Then, with a mad little hop, back into the torturous Brooks saddle.