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BUZINESS

Lavender watercolour by Leanne

HELLO everybody,


I have been happily illustrating and writing about the cycle ride for 25 days now. Only a quarter of the way in distance – which gives you an idea of how long the long distance ride was. After some thought I’ve decided the story can be divided into three parts to prevent OVERWHELM. lol.


Part ONE being the ‘Italy and over the Alps’ section, The Rhine river and crossing through Germany to the North Sea will be the second section, and then Scandinavia the third.


So I thought this a good moment to take a little break from the writing. My house is rather neglected and Simon has invited me to go for a bike tour with him next weekend in the Rome region. That means a small interruption in the long distance story, although in reality it was never interrupted.


Thanks for all your dedicated reading, and all the wonderful comments and encouragement. All most appreciated and motivational in getting this story written down.


I will be back on the 3rd June for PART TWO. That’s our official end of quarantine in Italy. An auspicious day to continue with the bike tour. Until then I will be painting and preparing the illustrations. Putting the “Lockdown” blogs into a book, and getting my summer clothes out.


Looking forward to seeing your escapades on facebook and Instagram in the meantime.

Much love


Leanne

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Day 25 and 26 – Karsau, Basel, Freiburg – 114 kms

Frieberg, watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

No sign of the famous Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte so far. Maybe the world-famous Black Forest Gateau will make an appearance at my next destination, which would be Freiburg, although I doubt I would make it that far in today. The world famous black forest is looming on my right (north). That’s where they make the Kirschwasser or ‘cherry water’ with a volume of 40% to put in their delectable cake. Apparently the Swiss also add it to fondues.

The journey is not without highs and lows, although the terrain is flat. The river runs into water works! A blockage, necessary to prevent flooding. Everything is under control here except the weather. Sunny and hot.

After a good breakfast, I rejoin the river at the Aluminium works. There are more clean looking manufacturing parks around here. Very important to the economy and to improving our comfort zones. The big mish-mash of pipes and chimneys and blank buildings hum with chemical smells.

Basel

Back to pedalling along the edge of the shining river, along the weed free cycle track, and thinking about all the people I love.

Swerved up to the big city of Basel to see a bit of Switzerland again before diving into the depths of Germany. Basel is immaculate and beautiful, definitely worth a visit. They take great care of their parks, fountains and signage. There are explicit rules for cyclists though, and beware if you don’t follow them. I cruise through town gaping at the amazing architecture.

The lipstick-red signs tell me where to go at every street corner. In a roundabout traffic circle, a sign points to Freiburg 77 kms. Golly, that’s a long way. I follow the arrow but find myself circling a few times in search of further pointers. I stop to ask a policeman which road to take. He replies “I don’t know anything about the way to Freiburg”.

So veer off on a random road which takes me to Huningue. It sounds good enough but I’m horribly lost. The map on the phone screen just cannot figure out where to go next. So I ride on over the border into France and through many vacant chic French villages, and then Niffer and Blodelsheim and Fessenheim. None of which had people in them.

At a greenly painted hotel I come across the first rude woman of my trip. She rolls her eyes dramatically when I ask if she could be so kind as to charge my battery a little bit. I offer to pay. She climbs up a ladder and plugs it into a hanging cord with an impatient gesture.
There were some very long and lonely stretches here, and I have to admit to performing my first bush-pee. Being open and flat country anyone could see me squatting amongst the sugar beet blushing in my luminescent pink top.

Lunch consisted of stolen goods from B&B Jasmin. My bike served as a picnic table. Nutella, hard boiled egg, apple, and a slice of horse food (sour bread). Washed down with the last gulp of water. There are no water fountains or places to buy water along the this route.

On the way to Freiburg

The photography of the day is dismal due to my speedy urgency to reach Freiburg before dark. My brother said I should definitely go there, it’s his favourite town in Germany. It’s way off my track but I obey my brother as usual.

The final hours on the bike included a few incidents: a side-on collision with a boy on a push scooter … golly that was a close call! He shot off the pavement without looking. Then I hit a large hole which clattered my teeth and sent my phone flying out of the little handlebar pouch. I only noticed it was gone about 2 kms down the road so raced back and found it lying in the middle of the path. Thank heavens! It would be a disaster to lose that. And, I had a wasp up my sleeve which stung me repeatedly while I was on the phone booking my accommodation.

The stings hurt but were nothing compared to the fatigue pain.

Negotiating the chaotic bike traffic in the university city of Freiberg at 18:00. No rules apply. There must surely be a million bikes here!

I forgot to enquire about a lock up area for my beloved bicycle. Gasthaus Löwen does not have a place so after removing everything possible from the bike, including my whale bell, flower, carriers, lights etc, I reluctantly push her in amongst all the other bikes parked on the street and lock her up nicely for the night.

New record distance: 114 kms.

The person in charge of the rooms is not around with the key, so I sit down for dinner with flat hair and smelly clothes. A gentleman who has retired to Lago Maggiore bravely sits next to me. He knows all the Alpine cycle tracks. He tells me that my bike will definitely be stolen, whether chained or not. Thieves will cut the chain in seconds.

According to the restaurant staff, there is a secure bike parking at the train station. So I wearily take my bike downtown to the modern train station in the dark. Rows of bikes are parked under the bridge. To leave it there is more dangerous than being locked outside the hotel! So I ask the eyelashy girl at the info desk in the station building. She says “no, there is no parking for bicycles”. 

There is a large spiral bike parking tower 50 m down the road. A pretty young lady, who is also locking up her bike, helps me figure out the in’s and out’s of the ticketing system. All written in accurate German. One must stand on a sticker spot and then the gates open and close. It’s weird to see bikey stripped bare and caged like a boney zoo animal.

My clothes need washing, so I have decided stay here tomorrow and pick up a bit of culture at the same time.

Leanne's bike legs
Leanne’s bicycle legs in the mirror haha!

DAY 25

Hardly slept last night in the overheated attic room. A large extractor chimney, originating from the kitchen by the smell of it, blasted hot oily air directly into my window. There was no way I could spend another minute in that place, so went out into the morning, staggering under two panniers, battery, handlebar bag, carrier bag, handbag…down the street to somewhere else.

A more expensive place run by university students. They couldn’t allow me to put my bags in the room before 15:00 and they had no place to store them, so I sat in the dining room all day. A shabby looking person like me is the type you move to another table when guests arrive. I was asked to move five times. It was necessary to occupy the kitchen door in order to get my lunch order in.

When the room was finally ready, I dumped my luggage and went out to find a laundromat. A very-very thin man dressed entirely in black helped with the money.

As my friend Jane says “no matter how fast you ride laundry always catches up with you!”

see the route map here

click on the photographs to enlarge them. Unfortunately my editing program is not working, so these are a bit dark.

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Day 24 – Waldshut Tiengen to Karsau – bedbugz.

scenery along the way

The only men I attract by my appearance these days, are those with noisy machines. Mowers, tractors, builders and lorry drivers. Even the rubbish truck man made a comment after a near hit. I don’t think it was complimentary.
But the hoteliers usually always shake my hand when I leave, which is comforting.

My ebike has a little onboard computer which gives me four cycling modes, depending how much help I need for the terrain. I have added a pretend mode: “LOST” which is a boost for dizzy-blonde morale.

There are bedbugs in my industrial park motel room. EEEK!

Luckily I slept in my special silk sleeping sack to protect me from an annoying fly. Thereby unwittingly preventing those dreaded bed-bug bites. You must always travel with one of these silk cocoon bags. Bed bugs can’t get through the tightly woven silk. I saw them this morning clustered around my panniers which are standing on the floor. Now all my clothes need washing. Good thing, as they haven’t seen a washing machine for 4 weeks.  Hand washing my clothes every evening is obviously not quite enough judging by my attracting annoying flies.

Whistling along through yet another vacant village I see a public swimming pool. It is the hottest day so far and there is a blackboard outside with a fast food menu scribbled on it. The combination of pool and food is too much to resist. While guzzling a bratwurst smothered in mayo and ketchup, I watch a nice round Italian Mama dragging her crying little boy out of the water. He wants to play with the German kids….but she bellows “DEVI MANGIARE AMORE!!!”… . (you must eat my love). The water is icy cold and I wallow like a crocodile for a while.

Cooling towers, steel works, and other industry are beginning to pop up around every corner along the Rhine. Cement factories are my worst. Not only ugly and toxic, but the thought of covering the Earth with the deadly stuff is horrible.

A fantastic old covered wooden bridge – Holzbrücke Bad Säckingen – crosses the water between Germany and Switzerland. Switzerland is much more expensive so I ride across and back to the German side again. The Swiss like to shop in Germany because it’s cheaper and they can get the tax refunded.

At about 15:00 it’s time to search for accommodation. I haven’t seen any obvious places to stay along the route today. Even toilets are difficult to find. One cannot just piddle on the side of the road like the men do. Neither is this Italy where you can find a crowded cafe at the centre of even the smallest village. You can use the lavatory for the price of a cool drink and get help with finding accommodation.

Going strong and dizzily along this beautiful landscape. There are long stretches of shady bike tracks here but half the time you’re riding on the streets. Junctions can be a bit complicated, and routes take you along farm roads through cultivated fields. One of the hazards of riding in fields are the irrigation sprays. You must wait for the squirting and then speed passed while they turn the other way. I think a light sprinkling will be nice in this weather so I go pedalling through. Just so you know, it’s like a waterfall and rather blinding. I almost veered off into the maize.

Checked my booking.com for a place to stay, and found Pension B&B Jasmin, off track at Karsau. On the way up there I spot an a ebike shop. Feeling very happy to stop and ask the huge man for some chain grease. He shows me how to apply it. Now my gears don’t change very well, and the chain clatters terribly.

There is nobody at B&B Jasmin, so I plonk myself down at a Pub close by. Testing my German a little bit. A very traditional place that smells of cigarettes and sour beer. I randomly order dinner – Rinderleber with balsamico – for the Italian touch. The waiter brings it to the table and says it’s cow heart. After a few moments of revolted consideration, my reasonable voice says “oh well, maybe it’s good for courage, love and emotion”. Strangely it tastes exactly like liver and onions. Washed down with a freezing glass of white wine.

I am way too tired and my hair is a fright.

Odometer 1573.7

63 kms today.

See the route map here

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Day 22 and 23 – Rorschach to Tägerwilen to Waldshut

Cycling colours

My paper supply has run out so I had to use my colour tester blotting page for the illustration today.

Jumped on the bike at 7:30 this morning to find only 30 kms of battery life on the display…of course I could pedal without power, but it’s going to be like riding a cow instead of a black stallion. With a lumbering 42 kilos of haulage to push along. On the flat shores of lake Constance that should be ok for a while.

A cyclist told me yesterday that the weather will be bad. The Norwegians say there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. 

Lake Constance or Bodensee in German is a soft tone of Schminke Paynes grey. The fine brushstroke of land on the opposite bank is Germany. Shafts of sunshine beam through the gaps in the clouds.

At an empty lakeside cafè the barista makes me a cup of milky coffee. He doesn’t speak English or Italian, and asking for coffee used up almost all my German words “Kaffee bitte, danke schön”. I have no idea how to ask him if it would be ok to recharge my battery? You would think having a German husband would have forced me to imbibe some phrases, but I seem to have trouble stringing words. Even remembering the words to string.

“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Like languages there are many choices of bike tours in this area, the sign posts hold up dozens of arrows pointing to various routes. I am taking the Eurovelo 15 which runs along the Rhine valley via Basel. Every time I see a 15 at a bivio I’m thrilled. For the first time the route is clear and I don’t need to stop and get my phone out to check the map. The wifi service is not so wonderful. My Italian phone number complicates matters.

There are more tourists riding this route as the day clears up. It’s a beautiful ride among vineyards, apple trees and pretty gardens. The water of the lake changes to a sensational blue. Perfect cycle tracks lead through the fields, and more fields…kilometers of them until there is just 1 km worth of power remaining in the battery and no sign of a village. I resign myself to my fate, but at that moment a restaurant appears like a genie from a bottle and we fizzle into the parking lot.

The highly recommended Swiss menu at Gasthaus Ochsen in Tägerwilen offers a delectable little bowl of sunshine – Il Risotto al pomodoro with fried feta, crunchy mixed salad leaves…and a banana-berry smoothie. Yesterday’s long ride has left me feeling kaput, so instead of charging up my battery in the restaurant, I simply book a room. Power up all my electronics and check the map. Bike stands lonesome in the foyer.

Odometer 1410.4 – only 44 kms today…

Day 22 – Tägerwilen to Waldshut – Emerald River blues

Another early start along the southern shore of Lake Constance, the border between Switzerland and Germany. All so calm unlike me who woke up in the night with vertigo! I am horrified and anxious. Moving my dizzy blonde head up or down is hazardous, the world swoops around, flinging butterflies around my tummy for a minute or two until it slowly stabilizes. Keeping my head as level as possible is difficult when checking for traffic coming up from behind.

Other than that problem the cycling is going well, I’m getting better at ‘handling’ the bike, and can almost always manage a u-turn in a small street without falling over. Not that the number of u-turns have diminished over time. Getting lost and doing u-turns are a constant challenge. At every corner and every intersection, there’s a choice to make.

Zipped passed the ancient city of Constance and went on to Stein-am-Rhein to see the frescoes.

Video of this area

Very quiet little villages along the way, only builders and road workers to be seen. After an hour of looking out for a coffee shop I eventually stop at a little bakery. Apparently you can sit and drink coffee at bakeries. Not something you can do in Italy, there you go to a bar for ‘un caffè’. Two ladies come in with three dogs and join me at the table. Chatting away as if we are a friend group who do this every week. Good for the vagabond soul. The apple pie is delicious!

At Stein-am-Rhine a Chinese tourist group are being herded by their guide, he’s yelling at them to look at this look at that, and they all had their phones up to their faces taking photos of whatever it is. I’m sure they are not having fun. The frescoes make the main street is a magnificent artwork.

The colour of the Rhine is a mesmerizing swirl of emerald greens, sky blues and turquoise greys. Surging whirlpools sigh against the embankments. You get into a good flow feeling following a powerful river like this. It has a long history worth mentioning but I’m wondering about the pre-history and how fabulous it must have been when it was wild.

 Made it to lunch in Schaffhausen at the corner restaurant on the main square. A delicious mango-curry-coco soup served in a jam-jar, a prawn with herbs and baked yellow mini tomato, all served on an old chopping board. The bottle of water is called ‘Silence’.

The river cascades noisily at Neuhausen am Rheinfall… eels manage to wiggle their way up these spectacular falls. The cycle track is full of people wiggling their way on bicycles. Summer is here and a good way to keep cool is to go for a bike ride. The air cools you as you go.

How is my body status going? It has been noted at the 1500 kms mark. Hearing is tuned in and the bum is as hard as a rock! Unfortunately the allergic sneezing and cough persist. Leaving me with itchy piggy eyes. And there’s the vertigo. Otherwise all good. Oh, and my hands are like two robotic claws that have been badly installed. I need to unhook them from the handlebars.

Arrived very tired at Waldshut-Tiengen to find my pre-booked motel located in an industrial zone, 3 kms away from any food. There is no reception, only a long row of rooms behind a factory parking lot. Room number and code are sent by sms. You need to type the code on a little box outside the door. The room is fine, just big enough to squeeze my bike in with me. After a hot shower and dressed in my dinner outfit I gingerly ride into town and eat alfresco at the pub.

(PS. about the vertigo, it’s not acrophobia which is the fear of heights. I’m taking some sort of medicine the pharmacist gave me. One must sleep on high pillows, never let your head go lower than your body.)

Todays ride – 100kms

Odometer 1510.9

average speed 18 kph.

See map day 21 -Rorschach to Tägerwilen

See map day 22 -Tägerwilen to Waldshut

Click on images to enlarge them.

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Day 21-Stuben to Rorschach-going down

Friesian horse in the forest

Dropping down from the arms of the lovely mountain today, with the Alfenz stream happily cascading at my side. From Stuben to Bludenz to Nenzing to Feldkirch. Dropping as a spider does, black wheels spinning below the Scots Pines. White water widens into a deep teal river and you can see the trout. As the altitude changes so does your attitude, going from high to low at the thought of the complicated web of agriculture and urban crust to negotiate from now on.

Soon there is a tunnel but the panic isn’t so bad this time, a bright spot at the other end is visible, and there is a shoulder to ride on. But I much prefer riding on the gravel forest roads in the mountains.

My tires crunch passed a forest clearing where an Oompah band blows a tune to a crowd in a carnival tent. Everyone is wearing traditional dirndl and lederhosen. To add to my delight around the next corner a beautiful black Friesian stallion bolts out of the bush, his shaggy mane waving over his face. I take a moving shot from the hip. One of my best photographs so far. His rider reins him in with a smile. The heavy camera hangs by a strap around my neck, bouncing off my thigh at every pedal of the way.

I’m officially over the hill.

There will be no more mountains until I reach Oslo. The flat air is strangely full of cooking smells on this side of the Alps. Windows are squarer and the cars are mostly black. Everyone is smart and sober except at the biergarten.

The joyous Alfenz runs dying into the dykes of the Ill which merges with the Rhine River or…Rhenus, Rein, Rhein, le Rhin, Reno, Rijn….This famous river is going to be my travelling companion for the next chapter of the journey. One thousand kilometres or so. But first there is the beautiful lake Constance to circumnavigate.

Feeling highly oxygenated after crossing the Alps. Approximately 450 kilometers on my odometer. I used to think the range was a stretch of two mountains wide with Austria snug in the valley between them. But if you ever fly over in a plane you can see how the snow covered peaks go on and on. The whole range makes an arc of about 800 km long (east to west), and about 200 kms wide as the crow flies.

103 kms later in Rorschach (Switzerland) I flop onto a bunk bed in a modern youth hostel Herberge See, happy to have all the bunks to myself. The room offers a fabulous northern view and one funny looking plug. Swiss plugs and money are unique. None of my electronics can be charged. The receptionist has locked up and gone away, so no chance of borrowing an adapter.

I must go out in search of food which is a lot of trouble for my legs. The closest food places are already closing up so I walk into town. Some nice ladies feed me green asparagus with yellow hollandaise sauce, and a little beer while they close the restaurant. Stacking up chairs around me as I eat. The World Cup soccer tournament – Switzerland versus Brazil game is on. Enthusiastic boys shout from speeding cars covered in Swiss flags. As I leave the restaurant the rain comes gushing down. My plastic sandals are slippery on the inside, so I walk the two kilometers back to the lonely hostel barefoot and bedraggled.

It was a lovely day but I’m buggered and tomorrow is going to be fun with no battery.

See the route map here.

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Day 20 -Landeck to Stuben – the Arlberg pass

Alpine lupins, watercolour by Leanne

The thought of cycling over any Alpine pass makes me nervous, especially this one, so I delay it and dabble with my paint-box instead. Sitting flat on the road in the still sunshine and painting the river bank full of chaotic lupins, dandelions, daisies and the bright water. I’m trying to have poetic thoughts but all I can think of is the upcoming monster.

According to the hotel manager, I must most definitely go by train through the tunnel, but Simon says “Go over the top, you’ll be sorry if you don’t”. It’s true, my goal is to ride all the way to Oslo. Some people suspect me of cheating which is understandable, they probably would in my position, but I really don’t like cheats so why be one.

Almost immediately the road turns up through an avalanche gallery crowded with zooming cars and buses. The booming echo sets off my tunnel panic. I look up and see a bus full of people staring down at me. A big sorry sob comes bubbling up, and I need to make an imaginary emergency call to my backup team.

The answer is immediate “Mom. Just pedal!”

No sympathy at all!

Well, I go through 550 meters and come out the other side where the views are astonishing. Scree slopes at oblique angles, all dotted with Norwegian Spruce. Pointy peaks streaked with white ice. A luminous sky leaning toward the colour of purple lupins.

I plug in my earbuds and play some music to get me up the hill. Not something I do very often because my phone runs out of battery too soon. Today I plan to stop overnight in St. Christoph which is just up the hill. So for once the battery power isn’t my main concern.

Oliver Sacks said “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more — it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Avoided a second tunnel by going over it on a service road. Stopped for lunch at an Alm in St. Christoph am Arlberg, where I’m sitting under a bright orange umbrella at a dizzy altitude, eating delicious Tiroler Gröstl. A copper pan filled with roasted potatoes, fried eggs, bacon and onions. A bowl of krauti salad on the side, and an Almdudler to drink. Most satisfactory. Seems as if my appetite is coming back. Good thing because my arms were beginning to look like two brown chopsticks.

I ride around to find a room at one of the hotels. They are all closed for the summer. So I’m forced to ride on. The battery is almost empty…and the thought of another vertical climb puts me in a spin. But the road wiggles along some curves and then gratefully falls, zigzagging steeply. Harley Davidson motor-bikers come up against me, blasting with noise and shining colours.

I stop at a panoramic viewpoint to check the app and book a room at the next village – Stuben. The Après Post Hotel is the only accommodation available and at a reasonable rate. After almost falling down the cliff, I arrive at the hotel and think “oh golly” this is going to be expensive. Way too posh for my budget. These new polaroid glasses of mine probably blurred a zero when I was making the booking.

However, my happiness level soars when the receptionist confirms the price. Golly, how lucky! To top it all, the pretty waitresses dressed in traditional dirndl costumes, help me carry my panniers to the room.

Use of the spa is included in the price, so after a good shower I find myself wallowing in a large whirlpool made of stainless steel. At first the dark shimmering shadows play games with your imagination (jaws) but if you calm down it turns into a fabulous undulating rainbow-flecked reflection of the steely peaks above. There is also a basket swing chair pod to snuggle into, making it really easy to fall asleep and almost miss dinner.

Only 40 kilometres today. Over the Arlberg pass which is 1793 mt high at St. Christoph.

Lessons – avoid shortcuts….. and expect the unexpected.

At the dinner table now thinking about all those people on the tour bus, and how they missed the transparent stream hidden by the barrier rail, missed the cow that talked and the two running weasels. They didn’t catch the scent of that marvellous flowering tree in the fresh air… and they missed having a sob in the tunnel.

see the route map here.

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Day 19-Burgusio to Landeck-Austria

Resia pass

The room has no frills. A small writing table and chair. Eleven electric plugs in the space of three square meters to charge up all my appliances. Other than the battery, there is the phone, the camera, the laptop, two extra lights, and a little recharger for the phone.

Up the slope from Burgusio is the magnificent Marienburg Monastery. Incredible to see, the highest (altitude) Benedictine monastery in Europe. The library there has recently been rebuilt for the valuable book collection. Architecture and technology have come together here in a brilliant way, well worth a visit.

After a good German-style breakfast I set off … warily checking for the man.

The sky is royal blue but there is a strong head wind blasting over from Austria.

Lago del Muta Haidersee passes to my right. Then I cross over the wall of the next lake Reschensee. The water is all blustery with rows of white waves. The famous old church tower stands in the water. When the authorities built the hydroelectric dam, they were compelled to drown a large area including a couple of villages. They dismantled the church but left the tower which stands a forlorn memory to the past.

My smoothly tarred cycle track winds up to the high point of the Reschen/Resia pass at 1500 meters and then down into Austria. I’m quite sad to leave Italy. There are European Union flags proudly declaring peace and co-operation on either side of the hill. But also a Republik Österreich flag painted in red and white. A group of motorcyclists are taking selfies. The lovely track swoops down through curved meadows of flowers. Small groups of houses and farmsteads huddle fresh and white with darkly weathered wooden gables and steep slate roofs. Bright flowers hang in baskets below patterned window frames. Their facades a-swirl with painted scenes and figures. Roses spill over picket fences.

The exhilaration of swiftly going down the other side of a pass is incredible. You grow wings.

Then things get crazy. My kids would absolutely love going down a switchback road like this, dropping meters per second into a crack in the Earth excavated by the Inns river. Wild noise!!

At the bottom of the ravine, sheer cliffs on either side rise up so high you can’t see the tops. I cross over the bridge to the Swiss side of the river. My second international border of the day. A sign points left to “St. Moritz” but I follow the water. These fancy new polaroid glasses tend to enlarge things and make them more vivid, adding an astronautical dimension to the scene. Quite an overwhelming feeling of becoming a jellybean, a tiny bag of complexity wrapped in a very fine membrane balancing on a precarious instrument called a bicycle.

The river is a heavy raging torrent of deep white water that crashes off the staggering cliffs, thundering at immense boulders and ledges in a wash of foam. The sound magnitude of vibrating rocks and water is beyond hearing, you can feel the rumble in your chest. My claws cling to the handlebars as clouds of turbulent vapour blast me along.

Such real awesomeness that breaks open your brain to stuff it with the universe, and your heart forgets to beat in the face of raw power. The road draws on down the valley and the world begins to calm down.

People who make a living in these brutal mountains must be admired. As for the cows, they all have brass bells around their necks and graze on vertical banks of flowers. No wonder the milk is so sweet and fragrant.

There are quite a few other cyclists on the pass, mostly couples, some on e-bikes. Fleets of racers too, both men and women. I haven’t seen any solo female bikers since leaving Marino.

Landeck

Next stop, Landeck, where the Inns river merges with other catchment streams then snakes its way to Innsbruck. Simon had suggested I might stop at Landeck for lunch. But I cycle into town at 17:00 – with 85 kms on the screen, flat out exhausted. The wind pushed against me all day. What a beautiful ride, but the seat has left me wounded.

Found a hotel, Bruggner Stub’n, with a nice big room. Dinner and breakfast included. The manager is chatty and knowledgeable. He says I absolutely must take the train through the tunnel tomorrow. He worked on the QE2. I presume as a chef by the way he so lovingly talks about food. He gives me the choices on tonight’s dinner menu, and it takes less than a second to answer yes to most of it. So hungry, I go down to the dining-room as soon as the doors open at 18:00. I am the only guest, and my table is set for one. A blonde waitress brings soup, “Tafelspitz” she explains “beef broth with apple sauce, horseradish and chives”. It is delicious. but I manage just a few spoons and my appetite disappears. So strange.

Logistics status. haha.

Now that my first one thousand kms are done, I feel more qualified to tell you more about the body management.

At 7:00 I toss myself out of bed and put on my sometimes damp outfit which I always wash the night before. If I’m lucky there will be an egg at breakfast. Then quickly pack up all the paraphernalia, battery charges, laptop, diary etc. Everything goes into specific ziplock bags which makes less mess when you need to dig down in the pannier for something. The body is adapting to a clockwork toilet routine, for the first time in my entire life. That business is done at 7:30 just before setting off. For those who wanted to know what one does about a loo when you’re out there all day in the countryside. That worry seems to have taken care of itself. Squatting down in the bush hasn’t been necessary yet.

I have a stash of energy bars in the bag, and my water bottle is filled when I stop for lunch.

Most days at around mid-afternoon I stop to check my phone for a room on booking.com. I try to get the cheapest one with the best reviews and a lockup for my bike. Unfortunately, rates for a single room are almost the same price as a double room, and mostly they are double rooms anyhow. I prefer places recommended for their ‘especially clean rooms’ for obvious reasons. Most places in Europe have a bathroom with a hot shower, sheets, towels and little bottles of intensely fragrant shower gel. Most appreciated after a sweaty day.

I know some people think an e-bike is a scooter. You just sit on it and go places. That is half-true if you ride for a couple of hours with battery set on turbo. One must pedal to actually move forward. However, a fully loaded bike will soon run out of battery power and leave you struggling especially in the Alps. One has to be thrifty and use the lowest assistance possible at all times.

Shoes are important, and my Colombo hiking shoes have been very comfortable. They have cut-outs which allow air and sunlight in. The feet are tanned in giraffe-like spots. The nose is dangerous terracotta colour and the legs are shaping up a bit. I think.

Austrian food has nothing to do with Roman food. Animals and their milk appear in almost every dish here, while in Rome it’s all about tomatoes and olive oil. Sipping on a little glass of wine is a luxury I allow myself after all the bumping and steering and pedalling of the day. Pasta is the easiest thing to digest, can’t seem to manage a whole portion. Today for lunch I had half an energy bar and felt full.

Off to bed now, it’s 21:00. Simon says I must ride over The Arlberg pass tomorrow, “don’t take the train”. The pass is 1800m high. The sound of it gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll check the map in the morning and decide.

See the route map here

NEXT BLOG WILL BE PUBLISHED ON MONDAY. I need to do some painting tomorrow!


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Day 18 – Merano to Burgusio – ONE THOUSAND kms

day 17 - 1000kms since Rome

The day begins with a bit of light pedalling up through the Val Venoster/Vinchgau valley towards the Resia/Reschen pass. This is another historical route called the Via Claudia Augusta. The locals are Italian by law but they are trilingual, German, Italian and English. Tourists are cycling down the valley to Merano in droves. They whizz down then catch the train back up to their hotels.

This fabulous cycle track winds through vast plantations of apple and pear orchards. Following the now chalky blue Adige river to her source. The second longest river in Italy. Stone peaks break the skyline high above, patches of ice lie on the upper slopes. The temperature down in the valley is around 30 degrees, the hottest day ever recorded here.

A huge apple packing shed is covered with solar panels. Farmers spray clouds of chemicals on the emerging apples, forcing me to speed up to avoid getting caught in it. Perfect little apples hang on their stalks like green beads. Petals carpet the ground in snowy white.

My little computer shows 999,99 kms for a while until I realise it needs to be reset to zero. Hallelujah 1000 kms exactly at the apple store. You can pour yourself a glass of fresh apple juice, or bite an apple, just pop some money in the box and off you go. One hopes the chemical spray is not too harmful. In Italy, genetically modified crops are not permitted, forcing farmers to use more chemicals instead. Wonder which is better?

A young Italian couple stop their bikes next to me at the apple store. I raise my cup of apple juice towards them and say “cin-cin! Can you believe it, I have cycled one thousand kilometres from Rome to this very spot?” The couple say “Auguri” and offer to take a photo of me standing next to my bike. Pride comes before a fall warns the inner voice.

1000 kms

A man on a racing bike stops to tell us about cycling 800 kms in Siberia and raves on about something which I can’t quite follow. The couple tell him that “this Signora” nodding at me, “has just completed 1000 kms from Rome”.

The man changes direction and says he is going my way. He rides off ahead of me shouting about all his cycling accomplishments. He stinks. Following in his wake leaves me wafting through a cloud of body odour. I do my best to overtake and shake him off by surging forward when the track is clear, but he hangs at my side. E-bikes are fabulous but the battery only assists you up to 24 kms per hour. Beyond that it’s up to your own pedal power. Eventually I get ahead and pump away at my pedals.

A beer garden packed with cyclists looks likes a good place to hide. I hurriedly park my bike amongst the hundreds of others and run inside. The bombastic man miraculously appears and offers me a drink. I gabble something about friends and plonk myself down on a bench next to a German couple who are eating lunch. They immediately understand the situation and play along. The man vanishes.

After nice lunch with the Germans, I turn out of the gate onto the road without checking. A speed-biker almost collides with me. We both swerve, but he screams curses at me. Quite demoralizing curses. Shaken up at first but then realise how lucky I was, what an important lesson without having to learn it the hard way. Negotiating speeding cyclists is another skill I must learn on these crowded cycle tracks. Gone are the long dreamy days on the dykes.

Soon I see ‘the man’ again, washing his shirt in the river.

He waves. I speed away.
The cycle path takes me into a thickly wooded area. I’m crunching along on the grit, nobody in sight, happily looking into the depths of the woods for a glimpse of an animal or bird. Suddenly the bombastic voice booms over my shoulder and I wobble with fright “Non devi preoccupare – don’t worry it is only another 4 kms of dirt before we get back on the tarred road”. He jabbers on and on. He says “Germans are harder than Carrera marble, I worked in Germany for five long years and never made a single friend.” No bloody wonder, I think.

I put my bike in turbo mode, rudely overtake him and go as fast as I can to the next town Prato Allo Stelvio. Turning in my seat to check behind me and nervously look in my rear-view mirror at intervals. Seem to have shaken him off.

A little way beyond Latsch, a pretty lake-side cafe beckons, set in a green garden just the type of place I like. Afternoon sun glimmering on the water. The perfect spot for a delicious Apfel Kuchen with a bowl of hot custard and an Einspänner coffee piled with whipped cream. Calories galore. A weeping willow tree gently trails her leaves in the breeze next to my table. I take a leisurely stroll along the lake shore and photograph some yellow poppies. Sit down on a bench in the sun for a while and smile at the children feeding the fish, enjoying thoughts of my grandchildren. Feeling a bit lonely about my one thousandth kilometre, so call Simon tell him, and also mention the man.

When I go back to my bike, up jumps bombastic man who was lying on the grass. He continues his vaunting. He wants to know if I’m married and where I’ll be staying tonight. It may be harmless goodwill, but he is intolerable and ruining my day with his smell and verbal diarrhea. I take a photo of him and send it to Simon. As I ride off he is at my side again, hovering like a fly. The pepper spray and a knife are in the handle-bar bag. I wonder if I should I take them out and keep them handy in my pocket?

Annoyance and anxiety tarnish what should be a glorious ride. The wind is coming down hard from the pass and it is difficult going head first into it. I ride off as fast as I can with bike on full power. It’s getting late and there are no riders on the track but I seem to have lost the bombast.

Coming up the hill into a quaint village called Clusio he rushes out from a side road across my path shouting “Ecco La”…. there she is!

“Oh no! Va via!” I shout… GO AWAY!

Switch the bike turbo mode again. Going as fast as I can up the swerving path. The track leads steeply up into a dark wood. Totally alone, my fibrillating heart makes me giddy.

I have booked a room for the night at Burgusio. The next village comes into view but relief is short-lived when I see the sign – Malles. Then I miss a turn which is hard to imagine considering the number of bike route signs. A woman with a pitchfork tells me to go back. Panic floods me when I realise my battery will run out before I reach the safety of Burgusio. The hideous man is hunting me down like a rabbit on this Alpine pass.

I pound desperately at my pedals, panting heavily with strain. The battery is set to ‘eco’ the lowest setting with only 1 km of battery power remaining. Will I make it? Probably not.

Miraculously a tower appears at the top of the slope, a sign of civilization. I can see the town ahead now as my battery runs out. Luckily it’s only a couple of hundred meters to go.

I rush into town to find the Garni apartment hotel with the help of the Google girl voice on my phone. Hoping the man isn’t watching me as I push the bike around to the back of the house to hide while I get my breath back. Then sneak around to ring the front door bell. Nobody answers. I call the number, and a young person answers “I will phone my mother, she is at the hotel but obviously did not hear the bell”. My nerves are on edge waiting like this in full view of the street. A few minutes later the door opens and a small dark woman allows me to scamper in.

71 kms today…uphill all the way.

See the route map here (not 100% accurate)

Eurovelo cycle routes in Europe

the bombastic man
The bombastic man

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Day 17 – Trento to Merano – rainy day

Merano - watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Riding along warbling a song when I hear popping noises on my helmet and my glasses turned into kaleidoscopes. It is raining again. The body is doing fine, wrapped in plastic but the atmosphere is sheer gloom. After a couple of wrong turns, it’s now full speed on track.

The government has done well making us this cycle track. Smooth, clean and fast. The fields around blur with wispy asparagus plants. New shoots pushing up out of the mud. Two monster tractor machines are moving down the cycle track towards me, mowing the spring flowers growing along the big banks of the dykes. Long arms, meters wide on each side, cut and suck bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, along with forget-me-nots, poppies, fennel, buttercups and other beauties, all into a big bin truck.

I get off my bike and gesture to the drivers to stop, but they ignore me and continue their devastating job. The resulting scene is a boring mass of chopped-off stalks for the next 15 kilometres. I pedal furiously along the bulging Adige river. She looks grey and devoid of flowers.

What is this coming up? A proper bicycle station, with restaurant and clean toilets! I feel pleased as I park my bike under a little roof with all the other bikes and go inside for a cappuccino. How pleasant to commiserate with fellow cyclists on a rainy day?

But nobody speaks to me. The guests are all athletic men dressed in racing gear. They wouldn’t speak to an eeee-biker I suppose, or could it be that I have taken my unattractive look too far? My face is completely naked – no lipstick – mascara – eyeliner – brow pencil – or concealers. Helmet hair isn’t gorgeous either.

The hot soup at Egna Neumarkt Post restaurant is good. Not realising that the padded bum-bum of my tights retains water just like a nappy, I plonk down on a cushiony couch to look at the newspaper. When I get up to go to the loo, there’s a wet patch on the seat. “Oops, was that me?” The waitress gives me a sour look.

A big yellow detour sign “Deviazione – Umleitung” stops me in my tracks. The alternative route is full of puddles, apparently a practice ground for young men in fast cars. Trucks come thundering passed blasting dirty road spray.

I find myself lost and going into Bolzano by mistake so I phone Simon who is in an important meeting. He says turn around and go back. The umleitung tricked me into missing a pedestrian bridge across the Adige river. This is the junction where the valleys fork. I’m supposed to go left to Merano. The track leads uphill through some barrel-vault stone tunnels, nicely lit for bicycles. Then curve steeply up a mountainside between pretty farms and thick forests until I realise the river is missing.

Wrong VALLEY! This is way the back to Lago di Garda!

Another U-turn and a fast decent back to the river. That mistake cost me an extra ten kilometres, and a serious climb. On the way down I narrowly avoid a face-on collision with a squirrel who happened to be hanging off the end of a branch eating cherries. We come eyeball to eyeball for a fraction of a second and I crick my neck to dodge the little thing. There are other small wild animals here in the mountains – a black velvet mole that nudged my foot in the grass earlier and a lost duckling who couldn’t see his mother duck down the road, so I get off the bike to herd it towards it’s mom.

Happily doing 30 kph along the flat -topped dyke heading straight for Merano. The lovely valley is tranquil and radianting green. The clouds break and the air becomes thin and unearthly.

Merano – South Tyrol

Merano looms up and shows off her beautiful public gardens and thermal baths. I have never seen such gorgeous colour coordinated flower beds. Wine red to candy red, pink to peach to cream to mustard yellow. The spring flower show is spectacular here.

Outside the camping ground is the groovy Bar Erika and a nice man plugs in my flat phone behind the bar counter. For accommodation he points his yellow smoking finger at hotel Isabella down the road.

A sharpish waiter at Forsterbräu Meran Birreria brings me goulash and beer for dinner. My mother-in-law told me beer is poison for the joints. She is right, but how can I avoid beer with goulash? My hands are becoming claws, so sore I find it difficult to hold a knife and fork. At night I flatten them out carefully on either side of me and wait for sleep to overcome the pain. My bum is black and green across the sit-bones. I know this because I took a photo of it (permanently deleted now).

Record distance today 108 kms. The sinews in my legs are beginning to show.
61 hours in the saddle since Rome.

Total 967.15 kms.

See the route map here.

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Day 16 – Riva del Garda to Trento – Southern Alps

Torbole, Lago di Garda, watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

The air is cool under dark clouds today. There is nobody around. It is my father’s eighty-first birthday. I wish he was here to see this beautiful view. The only sound is the chug of a small boat in the distance, the sound bounces off the rocky cliffs. Layer upon layer of blue mountains slip into the lake. The Alps have hardly begun, but the ride into that realm begins now.

Luciana gave me delicious scrambled eggs and fruit salad for breakfast this morning. The ride started peacefully pedalling along the lake edge. Not much reflection, just deep dark colours. Then a turn up a particularly steep mountainside. I snigger proudly past a young man struggling up on his mountain bike. The e-bike advantage is enormous in this terrain. Karma takes immediate effect by making me miss the sign for the cycle track, so I ignorantly take the high road.

The high road is for quarry lorries. There is no shoulder for a bike. The lorry drivers gesture wildly at me as they bear down. I am caught between the raw stone wall of the mountain on my right shoulder and the wheels of large trucks on my left. As they pass they leave a gap exactly wide enough for my panniers – give a millimeter or two. There is nothing I can do but go on as fast as I can, making a lot of small screams as the giant wheel-hubs spin and thunder at my ear. Those drivers certainly know their dimensions.

After about ten kilometres later, at a small town in the valley between Riva and Trento, the cycle track reappears and whoosh! What an incredible ride! It’s the first ridiculously perfect cycle path so far. A mini highway just for bikes. Lines and signs keep us on track. Suddenly there are other bikers around, and we shout greetings.

Sarche

At the village of Sarche black clouds came over the mountains and the rain rushes down in torrents. A couple of road maintenance men point me to a hotel. Sitting comfortably in a nook with a cup of coffee… then cappuccino… then tea…eventually I give up waiting for the rain to pass and put on my plastic suit to go.
From then on things become very soggy, including my bladder. There is very little chance of a roadside pit stop, being a lady. So I go on. The track leads to roads and a system of bridges and tunnels leave me feeling dumb. Some locals tell me I can go through the tunnel, but it is long and very-very dangerous and illegal for bicycles. My confusion is complete. I phone my family for directions but nobody picks up.

In desperation I take a smaller road, pressing aimlessly on, checking google maps on my phone but not actually finding the way. It would probably help if I knew where I wanted to end up. At a weird intersection leading onto another truck-filled road, I get off the bike and just stand there like a cow chewing cud. Like the weather, a grey mood descends on me and the Catastrophic voice goes mute. To tell you the truth I would rather push the bike through a forest than go on another ‘high’ road after the experience this morning with the quarry trucks. I scan through the grey matter of my brain and find only fog. A small red car comes along so I wave, it slows a bit then roars off.

But not all is lost, suddenly my imaginary team comes to the rescue. My kids voices pipe up in my head and I listen while they discuss the problem amongst themselves before leaning over to me and say “Mom, just go up this road to see what’s at the top of the hill”. So I go. Turns out the cycle track starts right there. I giggle-cry a bit and carry on.

Two men are loading giant copper pots into a van. They give me directions: “Go here, then two curves further on, take the third track left for a few kilometres on farm roads until you see a fruit seller on the corner, then don’t take the marked track, take the one that goes to the left, then turn right almost immediately onto a dirt road, it goes up steeply but it’s fine, then at the fourth or fifth track on the right side of the big road, go down and up again, then cross over the highway at the end of that road…….

Miraculously I find the fruit seller sitting in his van with the window open. He has one precarious looking tooth. When asked “which of the four tracks go to Sopramonte?” He gestures vaguely towards a muddy track in the forest and grins widely. He leans out of his van window and hands me half an apricot to taste. I eat it in two snaps. It is as sweet as honey.

Something tells me to avoid the forest road, so I take one of the other options, they all merge around the corner anyway. The climb is huge, 1000 meters up to Candriai. I manage to find a loo at a cafe there, and the barista tells me I’m nuts to ride further up to Sopramonte.

Trento

Dropping 1000 meters down into Trento is exhilarating, switchbacks all the way down the raw orange cliffs. Trento lies flat in the valley, crusty and full of fuming industry. First a glass of Vermentino wine at a bar where the barman recommends the ‘Everest Hotel’. So I go there.

I must admit I’m falling in love with my bicycle. Seriously, after clinging to her all day there is a certain separation pang when I lock her up in the hotel Everest basement for the night. She looks so forlorn stripped naked of her panniers. In the morning I feel a wave of happiness to see her again. Going a little crazy?

I put vinegar on my pasta instead of olive oil at dinner by mistake. It’s apple cider vinegar, no more balsamic in apple country. I eat the sour pasta with long teeth.

 Heading for Meran tomorrow.

Trip distance so far 858.67 Kms.

Time in the saddle 55:32 hrs.

Happiness level: “high.”

See the route map ( forgot to add Candriai)

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Day 15 – Mantua to Riva del Garda – a boat ride.

Day 14 Lago di Garda by Leanne Talbot Nowell

I’m sneaking through the bushes along a little path in the woods this morning at Mantua. A large sticky spider web attaches itself to my back, and I take its owner for a short ride before swatting and swerving crazily. A couple of swans hiss at me over their goslings. Rabbits hop about. The fairytale continues.

Surprisingly, my knees seem to be holding up, and my back is unusually pain-free. It’s amazing what biking can do for a granny as gnarly as me. A nice lady points the way to the cycle track which leads out of Mantua towards Lago di Garda, and soon I’m cruising between wheat fields once again. I’m so happy to have a cycle track to follow, instead of those truck-infested roads.

This is the lowest point, geographically speaking. of my route across the valley. From now on the road will begin to rise up onto the foothills of the Alps. The catastrophic inner voice has been forbidden to speak of the Alps.

Farmers are turning hay, throwing up great clouds of hayfever-provoking dust. I hold my breath when a cloud billows my way. Tiny bits of wheat stalk stick all over me. A niggly dry cough hacks away at my energy, and my fingernails are black as they collect dust and carbon from scratching my itchy face.

A pig-swill truck swerves onto the cycle track, and the stink is so horrific it makes me gag. On a bike one is bombarded by the full buffet of smells, from star-jasmine to cow urine, to wet grass, to algae ponds. Water is everywhere. Gushing, chalky blue, over weirs, rushing along canals, fiery green in ditches or dripping invisibly off trees. I’m astonished at the number of pumping stations, locks, dykes and concrete walls. Whatever have we done to our beautiful natural rivers!?

An obsolete castle on a hilltop surrounded by a little forest brings history into perspective. I stop for a moment in Monte Borghetto to look at the charming Medieval village and a Metasequoia tree. Also known as a Dawn Redwood, they were initially only found in fossil form, but a few living trees were recently discovered in China, and have been brought back from the very brink of extinction. 

The quaint medieval village is festooned with pots of scarlet geraniums, gay splashes of colour against the mossy stone walls. A softly cascading river curls through the ruins of an old tower.

For some unknown reason, the bike battery, although plugged in all of last night, has not fully charged, so I am a bit anxious about how far and where to go next.

The catastrophic voice asks: “How will you ever ride over those mountains my girl? Don’t you think it’s time to go home!”. But my feet continue pedalling in answer, while my brain runs amok with anxiety. It will be bit like paddling a canoe over a tsunami.

Lago di Garda

The first glimpse of Lago di Garda is reached at Peschiera, the most southern village of this long lake. The road around the lake is too narrow and dangerous for a bicycle, so I’ve decided to cross it by ferry.

A man in a sailor suit standing alone on the pier tells me: “You have missed the boat. There are no more today”. At the information office I ask a tall dark girl with impressively long mauve fingernails. She points at the timetable, the nails clicking as they touch the card. I ask if there is another ferry today.  Judging by her reaction she has been asked that question way too many times. The answer is a definite no.

I pedal gingerly west along the southern shore, using as little battery power as possible. My loaded bike is impossible to pedal without it. At the ferry port of Sirmione, a man sitting in a small white ticket box interrupts me while I’m asking him about the next ferry, shouting repeatedly over the loudspeaker: “Schlange auf der rechten Seite”.

A group of German ladies giggle each time he yells. I ask which is the furthest jumping off point and he replies “Riva”, so I buy a ticket for there. The boat leaves at 15:30, just enough time to taste a peachy ice cream at the elegant Grande Cafe italia. My bike parked at the table with me.

He yells again: “Please queue on the right side”. About fifty of us stand in a hot line until the ferry arrives and my bike is safely wheeled on board and tied to a pipe. What a relief to sit down and travel on a flat chair. The cough sounds tight and wheezy. I realise the only thing I’ve lost since Florence is my appetite.

We chug over the rocking water reflecting late afternoon light and shadows up onto the ferry ceiling. Heavy fumes trailing behind us, away from the flat white-hot sky and coming storm. All around the lake, the green-blue mountains of the Alps surge up into the sky.

Heading north we cross from coast to coast, village to village, picking up and dropping off passengers. The deck is made of iron and painted apple green. Three young sailors man the ropes, shouting to the harbour hands to set the gangplank. When they’re not throwing ropes, they sit behind the bar and laugh into their phones.

I scuttle around the deck photographing the astonishing views. Italy radiates unearthly light. The sky turns to apricot, the mountains glow gold, and the dark water shimmers with bright reflections of crayon-box houses along the shore.

We pull up to Limone del Garda, clinging vertically to a towering cliff. Her fantastically terraced “limonaia” orchards are now beginning to be renovated after a total collapse since World War II. The ruins of old stone pillars half-stand in honour of the greatness of her lemony past. Thankfully, tourism has brought new life to the town of Limone.

The colours of sunset sink slowly into the lake as we drift up to the darkening pier of Riva del Garda.

Riva del Garda

My battery expires outside the nicer-than-expected Hotello dello Sport. Luciana gives me a warm handshake and shows me the dungeon where I’m to store my bike. She helps me carry all my things upstairs and shows me to a lovely, newly decorated room with a balcony and a delicious shower. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and – Ugh! a big piece of grey spider web is attached to the back of my arm. It must have hung off there all day. No wonder nobody spoke to me on the ferry. They probably shuddered at the sight of me. As if I had leprosy or something.

I plug in my battery and put on my one evening outfit – black knitwear pants and a white sleeveless non-crease blouse, and head into town for a little supper. A solo eater at “Al Vaticano” restaurant is a noticeable rarity.

In Italy one tries never to eat dinner alone. I’m a bit embarrassed to be within hearing distance of neighbouring conversations. A young couple nearby are having a quiet fight, full of hisses and groans.

The staff make an effort to pep me up with small jokes, as if they are almost ashamed of my loneliness – “With her one glass of wine and lonely candle.” They would be shocked to know I’m not alone at all, but having a conversation with a throng of internal voices. They’re discussing the mountain pass for tomorrow. And Catastrophic is furious that I haven’t checked my tires once in 800 kms.

See the route. From Mantua to Sirmione. The boat ride from Sirmione to Riva del Garda is not included.

Lucy Liu
Lucy Liu at the breakfast table in her garden.

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Day 14 – Mirandola to Mantova – the Po River.

Po River snake Day 13 by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Known for her exquisite beauty, Mantova of Lombardy is yet another World Heritage site.  Virgil was born nearby, and Shakespeare’s Romeo was banished here after seducing Juliet.

Finding a place to stay every night is challenging.  It is midsummer and certainly a dream to cycle through this fairy landscape, but there are floods of tourists gobbling up all the accommodation. Sleeping alfresco would be a nightmare.

“You’re such a softy” Simon says on the phone.  And another thing, this painful saddle has not improved and neither have my knees. And my wrists are feeling it too.

I left my comfy hotel room in Mirandola after an egg breakfast this Sunday morning. It’s one of those mustard and blue Van Gogh days with ripe wheat all over the place. There seem to be a variety of grains growing here. People prefer the ancient grains for making their daily dose of pasta. Not only are they more nutritious but also much less damaging to the environment than the hybrid types. Poplar trees rustle with heat along the Secchia river. I’m back on the dyke again today.

On the flats one tends to focus on the things right in front of you. Yesterday Giorgio said he usually goes up onto the dykes to see the sunset. It occurred to me that when you live on level ground, one doesn’t get to see much of the sunset. Going up to dyke height can make all the difference. But is also good to focus on what is right in front of you. Namely stones, holes, sharp objects, glass, snakes and anything that could make you fall down.

You’d think cyclists would prefer downhills to uphill’s. But like life, the ups are way more interesting, and you get a great sense of pleasure when you reach the top. Whereas the downs, as in life, are mostly just a whizzing blur and then you feel a little sad that it’s over so soon.

On my way I quickly visited the small town of San Benedetto Po, centred around a spellbinding monastery founded in 1007, the Abbey of Polirone. I popped my head into the great door of the Basilica. The air was impregnated with incense and candles glowed in the spicy darkness. I couldn’t leave my bike alone, so rested under the enormous cloisters and chatted with a family from France.

I’m very excited to reach the Po river, the longest, biggest river in Italy. This is the second day of cycling in this enormous catchment area, known for the great cities of Turin, Milan and Venice.  Over millennia, the Po has been the life blood of a large part of Italy. Water tests have shown shockingly high levels of cocaine. Four kilograms per one thousand people to be exact. Until 2002 all of Milan’s poop flowed directly into the river without treatment.

At last I caught a glimpse of the dark Po. Wide, green and calm. It lapped at the feet of a restaurant where waiters served me a plate of serrated tagliatelle with smoked salmon (no cream), and plenty of roasted vegetables drowning in olive oil. The outdoor dining area is closed to the river with plastic curtains. Views are not a high priority. Understandably the Great Outdoors is full of dangers, this spot in particular must have seen many marauding tribes, maybe a Goth or a Gaul, or even Obelix himself making a crossing. A long green snake crossed over my path, poor thing wiggled as fast as it could beneath the wheels.

I rolled into Mantova this afternoon at around 16:00. People strolled along banks of three lakes, which are actually moats built to protect the town.

732 km from Rome.

48 hours in that …. saddle since the ride began.

Finding a place to stay

Tonight, I am going to Industrial street nr.4. A B&B “Un passo da.” Translation: “A step away from.”

Industrial street 4 is an address with connotations. The place happens to be on the other side of the lake and not in the quaint centre of town. After I cross the bridge, my heart sinks a little when the Google voice directs me into a cement suburb. I only switch to voice guidance on Google maps when a recharge is imminent. Zigzagging along grey streets, my heart sinks again when the road takes me onto a highway. Big trucks threaten to smear me along the barrier rails. Soon I careen into a circle which brings me to a fly-off, and fly off I do, onto a smaller road which leads to the house over the railway and behind some factories. 

Two lovely ladies, Lucy Liu and her sister-in-law Stefania, are most surprised to see me on a bicycle. They greet me warmly and help me in with the panniers. Lucy Liu offers to drive me to a local restaurant for pizza, then pick me up again much later. She has another engagement to attend to. I decline and take a shower, spending the evening painting in my diary before collapsing in a hungry heap on the bed, pizza-less.

See the route.

Mantua - photo by Leanne Talbot Nowell
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Day 13 – Rocca Vignola to Mirandola – being lost.

Giorgio at Antonella's place - watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

The day began with astonishing ease. Resting for a day has given my backbone a chance to realign. Valter oiled my chain and Christina gave me a hug, then I did the mad little hop onto my bike and off we went. The voices in my head were louder, and my bike was beginning to take on a personality too. She was my dependable travel buddy. Nobody overtook us for the next 30 kms on the first dedicated cycle track (piste) of the trip. It was a fabulously fast ride at a constant pace soaring over the flats of the Po valley towards Modena.

Thanks to yesterday’s cyclone, the underpasses were flooded and impassable. Vehicle drivers needed to take evasive action when I crossed over highways and spaghetti junctions. One needs to have some faith in humanity. There are humans behind the steering wheels of those trucks, happy to take evasive action if need be. 

Getting into Modena was exciting. That is where I found signs for the “Euro Velo 7” bicycle route.  Called the Ciclopisto del Sole – The Sun route –  part of the European network of cycle routes, it runs from the Alps all the way to Sicily. Not that there has  been any sign of it up till now.

Lost

The problem with losing yourself in a chaotic three-dimensional intersection with intercepting bridges, byways, flybys, fly-offs and contraindications, is that you cannot be helped by a map, whereas on Google Maps I can pinpoint myself as a pale blue dot. That is if you have phone signal, wifi and battery power all at the same time. But Italy is notorious for its blind spots. My phone signal was connected less than fifty percent of the time.

The arrow signs pointed both the way out of the city and the way into it, but I wasn’t sure which arrow meant what. Modena is a beautiful old city, full of arty treasures. The streets are cobbled with round river stones and the squares are immense. 

 A pretty bride wearing filmy pink wafted into the municipal palace with her beautiful bevy of bridesmaids. People sitting at small round tables under the arched portico, watched the wedding party, looking them up and down and judging their elegant outfits. The Italians know how to dress beautifully for an occasion, not sparing money or effort on details. I drank an excellent cappuccino, made by a genuine Italian. Mostly Chinese barista this side of the Gothic line.

Romance then took another turn.

My map app refused to load so I was forced to ask directions at every corner. For an unknown reason I kept losing the eurovelo 7 signs. Everyone has a different understanding of the streets in Modena, almost as if they have the ability to change the layout of the city according to their individual creativity. 

An old man on a cranky bicycle beckoned me to follow him: “Come this way, I am going to see my mother in that direction”. So, I followed him for a long way, until he waved me off at what appeared to be a dead-end street.

I went to the end of the broken lane and found myself completely lost. After some further complications a happy couple shouted to me from the opposite side of a flooded underpass tunnel, “It is ok! You can ride in the water! Va bene!”.

I launched into the dark and splashed through about thirty meters of sludgy water, the pedals just tipping the surface enough to wet my soles. Soon after that, a group of men told me to go back the way I had come.

“There is no way here, vai indietro!”

So I sloshed back through the tunnel again. One large person was most concerned about me and insisted that I should stop at a nearby restaurant to eat something. After many rubbishy intersections, I found myself mired in the pile of debris from the recent flood, trapped under a highway overpass. The inner catastrophist said nothing.

Then Giorgio Giliberti swiftly appeared from somewhere on his bike and saved me from the trench.

I rode behind him as he told me about his life. He is a photographer by profession and shows his work at exhibitions and produces many books. He had long curly hair and an open face. He looked a bit like God on holiday.

I happily followed Giorgio along the river Secchia, on top of the dykes for about twenty kilometres. He then took a turn off so I followed. We cruised through a maze of narrow country roads, between pear tree plantations and vineyards. Suddenly he veered off into a farmyard full of strutting geese and chickens and vanished behind the house. The inner catastrophist hissed in alarm. I edged my way around the corner into the backyard, not wanting to seem rude, but ready for fight or flight.

Giorgio introduced me to Antonella – “Ooo ciao! a pleasure to meet you”

She served an amazing lunch fresh from her bountiful garden, washed down with a bottomless glass of homemade Lambrusco wine. We sat in the dappled shade under the trees on plastic chairs, a soft breeze flittering the leaves, and munched on fava beans, liver and onions, feta cheese and prosciutto.

A large butcher arrived and said nothing, he sat down and ate his food. As he got up to leave, he turned to me and said “what you are doing is rubbish, let me buy you a train ticket home?”

I thanked him and declined his offer with a giggle “No grazie Signore!”

A local friend of Giorgio and Antonella, also a dedicated cyclist, came by and brought me the cutest little round bottle of Balsamic vinegar, which he held out to me cradled in his calloused hand. He softly whispered, “it is very old, certainly as old as yourself”.

I choked up with gratitude thinking of all the generosity along the way so far. What an amazing outpouring of goodwill if you show even the slightest interest in people.

Giorgio Giliberti took a picture of my bike and me standing on a dyke, then photoshopped a road sign into the background – Rome to Oslo – which he sent me later via Facebook.

Distance covered …650 kilometres from Rome to this point.

After lunch Giorgio rode alongside me, chatting, almost all the way to Mirandola, which was a bit off track. He told me to go there so I did.

There was a terrible earthquake in the area in 2012. Broken buildings still lie around in heaps of rubble, or are propped up with scaffolding. All three Churches in Mirandola were severely damaged, and whole apartment buildings stood empty, broken windows looking onto the street like skull eyes.

The new hotel Pico on the modern outskirts of town offered me a good room. There was nothing available in the historical centre. A nice young man at reception helped me to lock up my bike in a cage of gas cylinders, and then suggested that I go to the “Memory festival” to mark the day of the earthquake. 

After a necessary and pleasant shower, I tramped into town and sat down for a Campari Spritz at a crowded café under tall plain trees. The festival programme was packed with speeches, concerts and shows. Culture, food, music, art, cinema, theatre…a  reminder that a the true heritage of a community is the people and not the buildings.

See the route here.

Rocca Vignola
Rocca Vignola
B&B Civico 7 a Rocca Vignola
B&B Civico 7, Cristina and Valter in Rocca Vignola. Cycle track to Modena.
flooded underpass on the way to Modena
Flooded underpass on the way to Modena
Cycle track into Modena, Italy. Speedometer shows me going 26 kms per hour.
Cycle track into Modena, Italy
eurovelo 7, Modena
Eurovelo 7 cycle route signs
Modena, Italy. My bike.
My bicycle in the center of Modena.
Lost in Modena, Italy
Lost on the outskirts of Modena.
Lunch at Antonella's place
Generosity in Italy is astounding. Giorgio takes me to lunch at Antonella’s place.
Leanne Talbot Nowell cycling tour. (double the distances on that sign)
Leanne and bike outside Modena, Italy. Photograph thanks to Giorgio Giliberti. He added the signage.
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Day 12 – Riola to Rocca di Vignola …the DOG

BEWARE of the dog watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Waiting in the pitch dark my ears tuned in for the slightest sound. But there was silence apart from a twitter of a night bird. I lay awake for a long time wondering if I should go and see if Giuseppe was ok, but he had locked the door when he left and I didn’t have a key. There was no phone connection and nobody else on the farm. The inner voice said it was probably just a ghost and it’s time to go to sleep now.

In the morning the sun was shining and there was no sign of blood. Only a majestic view of the mountains. Giuseppe had vanished but breakfast was waiting on the table. I ate it all before loading my panniers and riding down the mountain to the main road at Riola.

500 kms.


Believe it or not but that terribly steep road I went up to yesterday to the ill-fated Il mio Refugio, is to be mine again today. It’s necessary to cross over through Montese on the crest, and down into the parallel valley.

The area is famous for nine mineral springs, some of them salty. According to the information poster in town, the area was considered sacred since the bronze-age. Cattle farmers would come from all around to perform rituals at an ancient lake which has disappeared now.

Goats and sheep munched at the edge of the road as I slogged up the switchbacks. A big green snake slithered along next to my wheel. Cherry trees dripped with fruit. Roosters crowed.

It took all morning to traverse the mountain. A bit like a game of snakes and ladders. Going down the other side was beautiful and quick, and I felt thrilled to have made it across the Apennines and into the catchment of the Po Valley.

Farmers were selling fresh cherries along the roadside. There are two types Duroni are scarlet and a bit tart, compared to Ciliegie, the sweet dark red juicy type. I stopped and bought a celebratory bagful of ciliegie from a lady and her daughter at my grand total of 500 kilometers mark. They took my picture.

Lunch on the banks of the wide stoney river Panaro at ‘Antica Osteria Ponte Samone’ was excellent. That’s where I met a travelling man called Carlo. He had a tiny black puppy in a backpack and told me to go to Rocca di Vignola. So I did.

The road there was overrun with speeding trucks. Some rumbled dangerously close to my shoulder. At the medieval village of Vignola there is a fascinating castle (Rocca) and a lovely posh bed & breakfast & dinner & lunch at Civico 7. A cyclone was passing over so I stayed safely home in the solid stone house. Happily spent the rainy day painting and eating wonderful homemade food with my generous and attentive hosts Cristina and Valta.

The room bragged a fancy spa shower which took me a while to figure out. When you’re an older person and slightly blind like me, those showers with levers, taps and switches can leave you feeling quite exposed. I felt like a Caravaggio character lounging around on the artfully arranged antique furniture picking at bowls of fat juicy cherries and sweets.

Valter was born in this house. It is immaculately renovated and maintained. In the dark attic stands a row of twelve wooden barrels full of wine becoming balsamic vinegar. Every year the contents of each are moved to the following barrel, and the first barrel is filled with fresh wine, until by the time it reaches barrel twelve it has become a glossy black syrup. It is then bottled. Some of the bottles are way more than one hundred years old, made by the ancestors. It is sweet and utterly delicious. I was treated to their balsamico on slabs of Grana Padano cheese.

The farmers made a lot of noise blasting projectiles into the clouds to ‘open’ them so it doesn’t hail on the ripening cherries. Boom, boom all day and night.

Then something unexpected happened. I went downstairs to the garage to fetch something from the bike bag, when a monstrous black Doberman charged at me. He made no sound except for his ghastly nails scratching the cement driveway. Valter who happened to be sweeping nearby, shot over to intercept him, taking the full force of the hugely muscular body with the broom handle planted diagonally across his chest. I made a really fast dash up the steps to the safety of my room.

Some deep survival instinct tells you when an animal is about to kill or simply scare you off… this dog was not trying to scare me off.

I found out later that he usually lives in a cage behind a hedge. He has never been out on a street because he’s too big and vicious to handle. So if you go and stay with Valter and Christina, make sure you don’t wander around unexpectedly.

See the route.

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Day 11 Montale to Riola. The Forest.

forest ride by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Lina gave me cake and cappuccino for breakfast. My stomach was in a knot. She reminded me not to attempt the ride over the mountain: “Non devi farlo Signora, per favore!” – You are not to do it, please – They stood behind their gate and waved feebly as I rode off.

On the google map I see two small towns clinging to the slopes, Fognano and Tobbiana. Beyond that there is nothing but forest for the next thirty kilometres at least. That sounds okay, I can do thirty kilometres. Yesterday I did a lot more. The dwindling road became steadily steeper. Switchback after switchback took me up through the small villages.

The city of Florence, a bright urban carpet lay far off to the south. Soon the road became a forest track, patchy tar and gravel. According to Google maps it is a twenty-one hour walk to cross over the mountain range. There is no bike option. The map showed a big green area, a regional park, with a couple of faint roads dotted here and there.

The mountainside was so steep I used battery “turbo” assist to go up the switchbacks. As I ascended, so the battery life descended. It is the most powerful Bosch battery made for e-bikes so far, so I didn’t worry too much.

My goal was to reach the “visitors centre” marked on the map where I could recharge my battery.

Two men with axes stopped hacking a tree to greet me.

There were no further signs of human activity for the next two hours of the journey. Heavy clouds came down and touched the bristling Spruce trees. Patches of mist cooled my face. Maybe I should have taken the road instead of a forest track.

The battery had another 10 kilometres of life left in it.

I phoned Simon who said“Sweetie, you can always turn around and freewheel back down”.

Suddenly I sensed a movement in the trees. There it was again. I saw something flash in the corner of my eye.

Instant reaction, I gulped down the energy bar and jumped on my bike, pedalling wildly onwards. The battery showed one kilometre of life remaining. Catastrophist voice yelled “wolves-wolves and bears!!!”

I turned off the turbo, and used the “eco” setting, standing up on my pedals and panting heavily for another forty minutes. Suddenly the road flipped downward, like a roller coaster, down I went – whizzing and blasting over mossy roots. The sooner I get over this mountain the better.

Over the sound of my gasping breath was the small sound of tinkling goat-bells which brought me to a quaint house squatting under the trees. Relief flooded over me. The visitor centre? There was no phone signal here, so I couldn’t check the map. The place looked a bit shabby, more like a farmhouse. I disembarked and knocked on the door – nothing. I called out – nobody answered – I knocked again – nothing – I yelled – nothing.

This couldn’t be the visitors center so I went on and on, the road was better, a smoother surface and bit wider. Still no phone signal so there was no way to find out where I was.

“What is this looming up now? Please not another mountain?”

“…oh YES MAM!” blurts the catastrophist.

There was nothing to do but go for it. No way to turn back now after that long downhill rush. I was trapped between mountains. Eventually signs for the visitor centre appeared. I started to hum, feeling strangely ecstatic, breathing huge puffs of the oxygen rich air.

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

The visitors centre was closed. Not a soul. No battery, no phone, no lunch.

Why didn’t I listen to my hosts Lina and Michele, they are locals and know these things. If the wolves get me, at least my fluorescent green jacket might be visible from a helicopter. What use are maps when you don’t know where you are to begin with.

The road gradually began to descend into a beautiful valley. It followed a cascading stream under the trees. After crossing the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna a blue lake appeared far below in the widening valley at Suviano. I whizzed down to the water’s edge, happy to see people again, and pulling up to a kiosk with tables under the pines. The lady behind the counter allowed me plug in.

I ordered a large plate of pasta and a cup of wine.

The other guests watched me eating alone. Every time I looked up from my plate, they are all looking straight at me. Eventually someone came over and asked the question, and I replied ” yes, I cycled the forest alone”.

There was a little titter among the onlookers when she reported back.

I ordered desert.

Maybe it was the heat or the wine, but I made a decision which would change everything. I took the low road instead of the high road. It went a long way down the valley and at 17:00 I rode into Riola, a small village with no hotel. A lot of old men sat around at the bar playing briscola, a popular card game.

There are no rooms available in Riola, so I called Tyrone to help me search google for a B&B nearby. He suggested “Il mio refugio” a tranquil place with a spa. But there was a snag. The location was five kilometres up a sixty-degree mountainside.

With the little remaining oomph, I went zigzagging up the incredible slope, stopping to pick fresh cherries and catch my breath. Not realizing all the while that this is the wrong road, but nevertheless, after some confusion and a breakneck forest track I found “Il Mio Refugio”.

The big gate was chained shut and all the shutters were closed.

Lesson 2. Call before you go there.

I phoned the number written on the gate and a lady said “no, sorry, we are closed, you should have called.”

At that very moment both my phone battery died, and the bike battery followed with a final peep. A sob of exhausted despair made my throat tight. Two horses stood with their heads hanging over the fence, nodding at me. The catastrophist hissed “Don’t cry in front of the horses!”

A man with black teeth and a difficult face came huffing around the corner on his bicycle.

He said “you can go down this road to Marano, there is a bar where you can charge your batteries” … so with huge relief I let the wind blast my hair as I freewheeled down the mountain … but in Marano the bar was closed.

Luckily the owner arrived at that moment and allowed me charge up the phone for a short while. She told me “there is no hotel in this place, you must go back to Riola but there is no hotel there either. Someone may offer you a room. Go to the bar and ask the waitress”. It was a laborious pedal back to Riola town (Province of Pistoia).

I went into the card-players bar, and talked to an exotic looking, short skirted, scarlet-lipped barmaid. She looked down at me from her stiletto heels in disgust. Her nostrils flared.

“Do I stink that badly?”

The barmaid took me across the room to a pin-up board full of business cards and pointed out a random few. Feeling rather frantic, I chose the first one I saw, and called the number. Giuseppe answered, and happily offered to fetch me!

“But I have a heavy e-bike, and no way to ride it to your B&B!”

He sang “no problemo Signora, I am well organized, you will see!”

I took a photograph of his business card with my phone and sent it to Simon and Tyrone for a background check. Giuseppe soon arrived in his pickup towing a mega-trailer made to carry bicycles and hoisted the bike up singlehandedly. The bike with panniers weighs more than forty kilograms. Giuseppe drove me out of town and up yet another incredibly steep hill to the bed & breakfast. He says I’m lucky there are no road-workers staying there tonight.

He cooked a yummy Tortellini brodo especially for me, topped with grated cheese called Padano, the equivalent of Parmigiana Reggiano in this area. Plates of different salami and finely sliced prosciutto were laid out on the table, flat breads, ripe cherries, two plates of homemade cheeses, and his own Lambrusco fizzy wine. He sat across the table and watched me eat, pushing the platters of food closer when he noticed a gap on my plate, and refilled my cup when the wine level was low.

We talked about Italy and her many troubles, especially those facing the new generation. When he was satisfied that I had eaten enough, he drew a map of the road to take tomorrow and wished me goodnight, locking the main door behind him as he left.

There was no phone signal or WIFI. There was no hot water for my shower. There was no moon, just total blackness outside the window. I locked myself in the big bedroom and flopped into bed, completely exhausted after 10 hours of cycling. As I was dozing off, there was a sudden blood-curdling scream. I lay stok-still listening, not sure whether the scream came from inside the room or outside.

(Rode 50 km today, up 1000 m in one hour – to a height of 2500m )

See the map on google

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Day 10 Florence-First solo day.

Brunelleschi's dome in Florence by Leanne Talbot Nowell

FIRST SOLO DAY

The sun rose and the time came to set off.

Malò gave me a big breakfast and little bottle of rescue drops. I gulped down the rescue drops then read the instructions. Two drops under your tongue to absorb slowly.

She also gave me a bright chrysanthemum which clipped onto my bicycle handlebar before slowly waving me off. She looked so lovely standing against a background of roses and blossoming olives. It was quite a heartfelt goodbye, the two of us under the cloudy Tuscan sky. Then a last smile before turning to face my fate.

Exhilarated anxiety reduced me to thinking nothing more than the air in my nostrils. The highly concentrated present loomed up around me. Each leaf on each bush type of experience.

The quaint winding roads drew me along, unfolding like a pop-up story book as I rode downhill to Bagno Ripoli. The white-whale bell that Megan gave me rang -ting-ting at a farmer who turned to wave. Stopped for a moment on a small ‘farmers’ bridge that crosses over the great A1 highway which runs down the spine of Italy. Found myself waving at the three-lane traffic below and some bored truck drivers tooted in response before vanishing.

“This isn’t so bad after all is it?”

The sun was shining, and the rescue drops did their work.

“I’m having my very own adventure, what fun!”

Checked the directions – Poggio alla Croce, right at pizzeria, follow straight, keep right at houses, keep right at bivio, sharp corner to left, down to intersection, other paths turn right, keep right, at house go left…. And so on, for pages and pages in my moleskin pocket diary.

I realized this style of navigating was not feasible for the long haul. Not even for half a day.

The Arno river like any big famous river is a geographic pointer to show the way. It rushes fresh and clean into Florence but soon accumulates toxic chemicals from the textile and leather works on it’s way to the Mediterranean Sea.

We rolled into Florence together. Glimpsed Brunelleschi’s remarkable dome but kept riding. Crossed over the Ponte Vecchio – Golden Bridge – between a mass of tourists and immediately turned left along the river.  A busy market in the park was a shamble of food and clothing.

My bike crashed down on a marble step.

I was standing next to it munching an energy bar when it happened. The only damage was my precious bell lever snapped off. The inner catastrophist voice told me I was ridiculously irresponsible and I felt sad that one of the most precious things I had was already broken.

The opentopomap that Simon printed out for me shows a path along the river. I followed it under the Viadotto del Ponte all’Indiano, the solid concrete pylons decorated with graffiti. Felt a bit uncomfortable travelling parallel to what seems to be the wrong side of the train tracks. There were solitary men hanging about.

At S. Donnino Badia I popped out of the underpassage and took the wrong road in front of ristorante Angiolino. Lunch would be most welcome at this point. But a bunch of grizzly pirates sat around the door. They all stared at me, one of them was picking his teeth with a knife. My feet made a quick backward pedal in hesitation, but the wheels moved forward and so I regretfully gave lunch a skip.

The remainder of the long hot afternoon was spent crossing over and getting lost amongst the higgledy-piggledy streets of San Donnino – San Piero di Ponti – Campo Bizenzio – Confini – and so on. I felt like crying.

I eventually collapsed into a bar in Prato, grateful to escape the roar of trucks on the busy roads. A motley group of friendly old men sitting outside offered to watch my bike. They asked questions and discussed my plans for the ride, saying “Accidenti” a lot, which doesn’t translate well but means WOW.

Navigating all day using my old cel phone was proving impossible. It needed recharging much more often than anticipated.

Soon the inner voice was nagging about a place to stay. Booking.com app offered me some choices. So while recharging the phone the next bar, I booked a Bed & Breakfast in Montale, suitably close to the Apennine mountain I would need to ascend tomorrow. There was no way around it, I had to go over it.

Lesson 1. Communicate a lot more.

Montale is a suburb of Pistoia languishing at the bottom of a hump in the Apennine mountain range, the upper vertebrae of the spine of Italy. It took me another hour and some wrong turns to reach the immaculately clean B&B Belvedere.

Lina and Michele kindly showed me where to hide my bike around the corner of the house. When I told the elderly couple of my plan to cross over the mountain tomorrow they reacted in complete horror. Mouths open and hands to their cheeks “O no Signora no! no! no! non puoi andare! Ci sono i lupi” – you cannot go –  it is very, very dangerous Signora, very steep, way too steep for a bicycle, and there are naughty boys who do naughty things up there in the forest. There are wolves, and hunters who shoot moving things and drive fast jeeps!

My knees were jelly from the ride but I managed to wobble myself to a nearby pizza restaurant.

It was open but closed to the public – opening night for invited guests only. Not keen to go in search of another place, I blabbed my sorry little story about “riding for eight hours today”. They rushed to fetch a chair for me to sit on while they made “una pizza molto speciale” a very special pizza, which the invited guests all admired. It was a Margherita with four basil leaves perfectly arranged. The lovely owners invited me to stay for the evening, but my eyes are pink and puffy, and I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say. They carefully put the beautiful pizza in a box and handed it over, refusing payment – “it’s a gift”.

I wobbled back to my huge spotless room and wolfed it down.

Leanne Talbot Nowell departure first day solo
departure from Poggio Pratelli on first solo day
Leanne ready to go
Leanne ready to go.
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Day9- rest day

Leanne Talbot Nowell - Poggio Pratelli Rose

Sunday arrives and it is time for Simon to leave for the train station. Malò, Guido and I watch him from under the rose bush as he heads down the valley on his bike. From up here we can see him until he is just a speck in the distance.

I feel totally bereft.

No cycling for me today. Maló and Guido invite me to join them at their friend’s home for dinner this evening. It’s a pleasant distraction from the panic-stricken roar of my inner voices. Victoria & Gigi and Bianca & Paolo fill me with delicious food, wine and bravado. The table is set on the big terrace with a dramatic evening view over Florence and Brunelleschi’s dome. A sky full of apricot clouds blur with the brush of an ominous breeze.

Weather predictions for tomorrow are rain and wind. But I don’t want to believe it, and plan to leave at 9 am.

This was the first decision of this trip that I made alone. Leaving time. From that moment on there will be a plethora of decision making to be done by myself. Something I always avoid doing.

Maló took me for a drive along the small roads in her car earlier and carefully showed me the way to get down the hills to the river Arno which runs through Florence. I scribbled madly in my notebook, drawing little maps of the maze. Here is an except:

“…left, straight onto yellow rd, left through Bombone, right, curve, straight to Torri, keep L, keep going, Volognano, curves left, right….”

So thoughtful of Malò and it certainly helps calm the nerves. Reaching Florence is one thing, everybody knows where that is, don’t they? The roads on the other side of Florence are the great mystery that gives me the jitters. I have no idea where I’ll end up tomorrow night.

The idea of freedom and going somewhere strange, having adventures and spiritual awakenings, are simply that – ideas. Imagination is what swirls around in my fuzzy head. Putting ideas into action requires a certain amount of practical help. If you don’t have a Simon to blame, consult, criticize and laugh with, then your inner voice begins to grow multiple heads and separates into individual characters. The loudest one is that critical voice which screams in your ear when you make a mistake. It is screaming now.

Florence with pink sky - Photo by Leanne Talbot Nowell
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Day 8 – Radda to Poggio Pratelli

Day 7 Simon at a shrine, watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Saturday morning sees us waving off between lime-green vineyards. Little did we know what was ahead. But first a very fast downhill. I whizz down at the terrific speed of 58 kms per hour. Simon goes much faster. My pannier bags soar up on either side of the bike like wings.


Then the nastiest hills of all but my e-bike propels me swiftly up ahead of Simon, who labours up through the vineyards on his normal contraption. When traveling by bike you notice the ground as it passes beneath you.
The changing colour of soil and road things like lizards and their fallen tails, sharp stones, butterflies, terrified snakes slithering quickly across your path, and the bodies of those who didn’t make it. You see the tragic remains of hedgehogs. You notice the quality of air, and your breath, holding it as a tractor drives too close to your shoulder, or a gasp as a patch of sand pulls you into a sideways skid.


You feel the wind dragging off the back of your arms like a silk scarf.


The buzz and prick of insects colliding with your face, and the strange musty scent of olive orchards. Clusters of tiny creamy yellow flowers hanging between the silvery green leaves.


You notice the tiny roadside shrines, usually made from stone or wood. In the painted niche stands a statue or an icon of Mary Madonna or St. Antonio holding a child. The locals decorate them with vases of flowers, rosary beads and trinkets. They are also comforting to passers by. A reminder that life is sacred.


This was our last day of riding together. Simon must return to Rome tomorrow by train. We take the morning slowly, riding along dappled roads and a camouflage of landscape.


Casanuova Locanda e Fattoria is a Garden of Eden. We make our unexpected way down the driveway to be welcomed by Ulla and Thierry, who were busy preparing the pretty courtyard for a concert that evening.
Ulla has successfully published a cookery book (written in German), obviously inspired by the delicious platters of prosciutto, salami, cheeses, marmalades and crispy homegrown bio salads which she serves. We languish long under the leafy pergola before throwing ourselves back on the road for the last pull up the mountain to the Agriturismo Poggio Pratelli, home of Maló and Guido. We share the heart-expanding privileges of both friendship and co-grandparenting.

Poggio Pratelli


Maló’s garden is absolutely popping with fat pink roses, lavender and blue cornflowers, rosemary, poppies and fruits of all kinds. Bees buzz over the daisy lawn which rolls to the edge of a grand view of the valley and layer upon layer of blue mountains.
We cin-cin our Prosecco glasses full of delicious golden bubbly from their family estate in Lombardy. A most auspicious cin-cin indeed, the news just arrived that our children (Megan and Stefano) are expecting another baby!
Maló conjures up vibrant salads, picked a moment before and sprinkled with intensely perfumed wild strawberries. Her food is perfectly dressed in homegrown green peppery olive oil. What a pleasure to be resting here under a pergola of flowers.


One week of riding so far. Tomorrow I will stay and rest my old body. I avoid thinking of what is coming. The ridiculously scary idea of riding off ALONE…!!! Maybe I’ll change my mind.


One thing is for certain – everything will change.

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Day 7 – cycling from Siena to Radda

Olive tree - watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Siena

Jolly greetings fly around the breakfast room at the convent in Siena. A friendly Danish couple cycling from Rome to Copenhagen mention the steep narrow roads. There are no dedicated cycle tracks, only the white gravel farm roads. We are now in L’Eroica country. “The Hero” is an annual vintage bike race that takes place in October. South Africa and other countries are now hosting their own version of the L’Eroica.

On our way out of town this morning, we see a small traditional bike shop. It is still too early to be open so we peer into the curved glass window with hands cupped around our faces. I am looking for a bag to attach to the top of my carrier where I can store random things like maps and snacks.

A figure appears from behind the dark counter at the back of the shop and came to unbolt the door. “Posso aiutarti?” – can I help you? -. Without much ado a square black waterproof bag with Velcro straps is promptly attached to my carrier and off we go. Ask and you shall receive!

We exit the walls of Siena through Porta Camollia and circle the periphery looking for the Francigena pathway shown on the map. 

A man walking his dog says he thinks “we can go down that way through the fields” and so we do.

He gave us no warning about the river. The dirt track was completely overgrown with weeds. Although a struggle to negotiate, I like weeds. Suddenly we find ourselves on the wrong side of a stream.

Simon says “follow me” and pedals through it.

The water was a lot deeper than expected and his shoes go down into the water. What a thrill, slipping and sliding over rocks and digging through mud.

The track takes us over a small hill. From the top we can see a big German shepherd dog watching us from the farmhouse in the valley. This is a private farm with no obvious thoroughfare. The road is on the far side of the farmhouse. The dog lies in the yard surrounded by a high fence. As we get closer we see with trepidation that the gate stands wide open. There is no choice but move bravely forward, feeling the sharp spike of adrenaline as we push the bikes quickly past the open gate and onto the road. The dog doesn’t move. A mad little hop onto the bike, and we pedal off.

Revelling in one of the most charming landscapes in the world, this is the famous wine growing region of Chianti. The hills are steep, extraordinarily steep. Simon struggles bravely on his normal bike. At the top of a particularly steep slope, he collapses with his arms around a statue of the Madonna. The hillsides are covered with pale green vineyards, gnarly olive trees and rambling roses. Drivers are very careful to give us a wide berth on the gravel. Except for one who doesn’t. Luckily no harm done, just a gritty mouthful of dust.

A fun group of Italians from Padua share Prosecco with us in the shade of a rose bush.

Radda

Arrive in Radda, the capital of the Chianti region, by lunchtime. Swerving to a stop at “La Perla del Palazzo”. The longer we sit and eat, the more we eat, the more we drink, finishing on a high note of delightful almond milk semifreddo. After a bottle of Chianti the idea of getting back on the bike is rather bleak. A mid-afternoon siesta is necessary. It is getting late anyway, and the road is difficult you know. The waiter calls the hotel and we magically find ourselves in a room fit for a king and queen.

A room with a view …so poetic… from the lofty terrace of Radda – our glasses of ruby wine held up to the sunset – and the moon floats like a white petal between them.

Total trip distance so far from Marino … 325 kilometres.
Today we managed only 27 kilometres. I’m never going to reach Oslo at this pace.

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Day 6 – Val’d’Ocia to Siena

Val d'Orcia, Tuscany by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Simon has bravely swapped his bike seat for my Brooks saddle. I am so grateful. The pain is not as excruciating. We bumble over the cobblestones into Siena before lunch by way of the Porta Romana. A cold beer and warm lunch cures the agony. Siena is built of red bricks, unlike the Roman stone and marble. Clay soils are at the root of the beautiful landscapes and towns around here.

Simon knows a convent hostel from a previous cycle tour he made with his men-only group. We go directly to the convent for a much needed shower. A no-nonsense Nun with a great sense of humour shows us to our dormitory. We muck up the room with battery cables and stinky socks, padded tights and wet towels then collapse on our narrow beds for a short siesta.

A ‘passeggiata’ in this amazing city feels so much harder than riding a bike. Trudge-trudge-trudge, moving with legs seems tedious compared to the smooth spin of a wheel.

Sitting down to a meal with Simon is always a special occasion. Beginning with a full-bodied Chianti ‘ruby red’ we toast our safe arrival with a “cin-cin”.

When travelling with my husband, one is required to methodically peruse the entire menu from beginning to end. Including any historical text that may be attached. Then you must choose a dish you have never tasted before. Don’t rush the waiter. Ask for explanations, ask for recipes, ask for the wine list, and ask where the winery of that wine is located, and ask to see the restaurant wine collection…haha.

Simon doesn’t eat at touristy restaurants on the main square of any city, he is a backstreet boy when it comes to food, so you will find him in the labyrinths and beyond. Luckily we find an off-the-beaten-track place for an ‘aperitivo’ with a spectacular sunset view over the terracotta rooftops all bathed in pink light. Gobbling down a designer platter of Tuscan cheeses and delectable jams and mustards, pâtés and honey as I write this.

On our way out of the door we bump into our (friend-almost-daughter) Sian from South Africa, who had also arrived in Siena today. www.sianowenphotography.com. She was staying with us in Rome shortly before we left on the ride. Together we dash along the streets from view point to façade to square, photographing Siena’s Golden Hour. After sunset, night falls softly, soaking up the colours and we say our fond farewell to Sian.

The good Nuns have invited us to join the procession from St. Francis to the Duomo. It turns out to be a mysterious and spirited event. Hundreds of children wear long white shift dresses, and men are covered in black robes carrying a tapestry canopy which is held over the Blessed Sacrament. That is the blood stain from the same “Hostia” we saw in Bolsena a couple of days ago. As the Mother told us at the convent in Bolsena, the miracle happened in 1263 followed by the building of the church in Orvieto, which was constructed to house the original piece of stained cloth.

The Cardinal in Orvieto wanted to make a scientific analysis of the blood, but he was forbidden to do it.

The soul-stirring procession lasted late into the night, hundreds of us walk in single file, chanting behind the canopy carriers, through the dark streets and into the vast chandelier-lit interior of the Duomo (Cathedral)

Afterwards we tootle back to the convent to find our Nun waiting up to let us in. Oops.

Some unknown pilgrims are sleeping in our dormitory room. We try not to wake them, but the old brass door handle rasps loudly. Sleeping bags are necessary, but we have none. But there are communal blankets.

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Day 5 – San Filippo to Buonconvento

Day 5 - Buonconvento - Leanne Talbot Nowell

The sky is dark to the point of purple and rain splatters our faces. Eventually we stop and take some miserable shelter under a tree. Passing trucks dash us with dirty road spray. The sky relents slightly so we make our soggy way to San Quirico d’Orcia in search of lunch.

The exquisite wild salad at the restaurant “Fonte all Vena” was hand-picked by a girl from Pienza. She roams the countryside searching for edible weeds and flowers. I eat the delicate salad with absolute reverence. It is delicious. Reminds me of my mom’s home grown salad.

The convoluted patchwork quilt of Tuscany is pretty gruelling to ride. You work hard pedalling up the round hills, each crowned with it’s quintessential villa. Then grab a quick breath while you freewheel down before the next uphill. I’m not complaining on my ebike of course. But something joyride day-trippers might not realise is the weight of the baggage puts a lot of extra tug on the battery power. Forcing you to ride on the lowest setting to make it last all day. This requires a lot more input from your legs to compensate.

Like the Camino di Santiago in Spain, the Francigena has long and convoluted patchwork history too.

Archbishop Sigeric the Serious, of Canterbury, took this route to Rome in the dark ages. He wrote a diary describing the 80 “mansions” where he stayed along the way. We don’t know his exact path but follow in spirit, searching for holy places to have our credenziale stamped. You must have stamps before you can accrue pilgrim privileges. Reading the stories from the past seem to connect your own story, making it an emotional experience.

Traditional religious culture may be fading, but it is a bitter-sweet goodbye. The grand emotions of soul and spirit, the marvels of epic poetry and ritual music traditions are being lost. The solid old churches are almost empty, but for tourists and a few old ladies or veiled nuns praying in the pews. We push open the wooden swing doors into the cool spicy gloom. The air is thick with the smell of beeswax candles on burnt-out racks.

A solemn Jesus hangs high under his pale crown. When you see him like this it is hard to imagine him walking around or having a good laugh with his friends.

Buonconvento

We have arrived in Buonconvento this evening. A nice girl is allowing us to overnight in her sister’s apartment. She suggests we go to a pizzeria just a short walk away for dinner. Feeling very hungry for pizza, we go directly there. The waitress, with a mouth puffed up like a pie crust, tells us “all the tables are occupied, you must wait 20 minutes!”

From the entrance we can see a couple of empty tables. Nevertheless, we wait.

Forty minutes later we ask another more friendly looking waiter if we can go inside. He says “prego” and instructs the crusty waitress to seat us. She reluctantly shows us to a table next to a long table where a twelve-year-old is celebrating her birthday with fifty shrieking little girlfriends.

Simon politely orders a bottle of water.

An hour passes. No water. The party table noise is deafening. We cannot hold a conversation. Finally, we ask the manager if it would be possible to move to a quieter part of the room.

He says “prego, come with me” and takes us through a door to an almost empty dining room pleasantly decorated with sunflowers.

Eventually the water and pizza arrive and we eat it with gusto. Hoping the pizza hasn’t been negatively modified by an ill feeling waitress.

Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII of Luxembourg died very inconveniently of smallpox in Buonconvento, on the way back from his coronation in Rome in year 1313.

Morning of day 6.

My body is stiff in the mornings, but after a few turns of the pedals, the old joints click into place and my brain boots up. Kicking my legs out straight help my kneecaps jump back into place.

We are sitting at a pavement cafe with our bikes chained together like two skinny black horses. A fat-faced cook wrapped in a milk-white apron and a tall chef’s hat, a ‘Carabinieri’ policeman in his fine black military uniform with a vivid red stripe down the outside leg, and a road worker dressed in yellow fluorescents sit at the table next to us. They gesture and guffaw over the chances of the national soccer team, the Azzurri (blues) winning the World Cup Football tournament to be held in Russia next week. Betting is hysterically popular in Italy. A woman sweep dust into the fresh breeze with a proper witches stick broom.

(ILLUSTRATION STILL IN PROCESS OF PAINTING)

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Day 4 – Bolsena to Bagni San Filippo

Day 4 cycling the tunnel

Yesterday was a sore day. This morning both my Brooks saddle and the scenery are breathtaking. We set off after a hearty goodbye to our nun, and take the back road up and out of the crater. Stopping to look over our shoulders at Lake Bolsena who winks at us with one blue eye.

Simon always reads information from the first word to the very end. In museums it is not uncommon for us to spend an entire day. He reads travel guides from index to glossary. Now stops to read a mossy inscription on a plaque in the middle of the forest which says “in 1505 the Pope Julius ll, asked the Confederates Superiors Alumnae, to give permission to Canon Peter von Hertenstein to guide two hundred Swiss soldiers and their captain Kaspar von Silenen ” pro custody palati nostri” (look after our palaces). They walked this route to Rome, entering from the north through the Porta Popolo on the afternoon of 22 January 1506. Blessed by the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica, the guards began their work that same day and still serve in the Apostolic Palace.” (Dressed in their bizarre red and yellow uniforms designed by Michelangelo).

The forest track is badly eroded. It’s hard not to sit on the torture seat. Seems the blisters have deflated, but what remains is not describable.

Fright

The tunnel was unexpected, a frightful 88 meters of velvet darkness and glaring headlights. Suddenly we are in it, together with the enormous boom of unseen motor vehicles.

Dark glasses render me instantly blind, squealing like a bat out of hell when my feet flip off the pedals and flounder around. The echoing of truck engines roar ever closer, louder and louder! Careering on through the dark with pounding heart, I yell for Simon but he is wearing his earphones and calmly proceeds. Eventually a pinpoint of solid light appears ahead. The shining spot grows steadily until we shoot out into the peaceful green. A feeling of being born again into the blue of a sunny spacious heaven. Laughing with relief and making promises to never ride into a tunnel like that again.

Lunch

A thrilling downhill brings us to the dark hall of La Dogana (Customs) on the border between Lazio and Tuscany, we dig into a bowl of delicious black olives, crusty salt-less bread and peppery olive oil while waiting for our green nettle risotto is patiently stirred in a copper pot by a chef in a tall white hat. A log fire burns under a russet brick arch. Galileo Galilei was miserably quarantined here for ten days on his way to Rome. There was an outbreak of the plague. He had been commanded to present himself to the Papal Inquisition. Having been accused of imposing on God the extra burden of a moving planet and judged to “vehemently suspect of heresy”. However, he escaped corporal punishment and was put under house arrest for the remainder of his days.

The place is full of men eating. They tell us they are truck drivers and commercial salesmen. It is a huge advantage as a foreigner to be able to speak some Italian. Almost like being able to see colours in the dark. They gesture as they speak holding little glasses of grappa in their drunken hands. Then they get into heavy vehicles and drive away on roads we plan to share. Simon takes a short siesta on a table under the pergola.

Val d’Orcia

From here a sweeping downhill takes us down into the dreamy Val d’Orcia of southern Tuscany and to Bagni San Filippo, a small characteristic village perched above ravine full of super-hot thermal springs. There is a steep path down to the Balena Bianca (White Whale), a waterfall of what looks like one hundred beluga whales jumping in a heap. Hot water runs down the white limescale formations into many human-sized basins which overflow into a river of chalky blue. A whiff of stinky Sulphur hangs in the air.

52 kilometres today. Rain is coming.

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Day 3 – Vetralla to Bolsena

Italian poppies

Day 3 – Flying along on the bike this morning. Legs pump away the back pain, but the saddle, oooh the saddle. I try to be stoic. My bum blisters have ballooned. One on each cheek. I haven’t seen them yet, but they feel like incorporated gel cushions.

At the coffee bar in Vetralla, a jolly well-dressed “Signore” orders a ‘whiskey corretto’. Normally people ask for a cafè coretto, which is a dash of alcohol in a shot of espresso. There are a myriad ways Italians prefer their dose of caffeine. We order cappuccino – hot – no sugar.

There are long queues of traffic waiting to get passed the road works. Trucks blast us with acrid black fumes as we weave our bikes between them. Gasping through his neck scarf, Simon shouts his slogan: “FOLLOW ME”. He is not afraid of traffic and holds the road. This is something seasoned cyclists know how to do – hold the road. It means to ride your bike in the middle of it, so that vehicles cannot overtake. Italian drivers are patient and road rage towards cyclists is quite rare. It goes against everything I’ve learnt about survival.

We stick to the pilgrim route as much as we can, preferring the white gravel farm roads.

Recent spring storms have washed gullies into the surface. My bike has rather narrow tires and I do my best not to get stuck in a rut. But ruts are inevitable on these roads, as in life itself. The thing is to not panic, be dexterous and hold on tight. Gravel roads are better than tar, not only are there fewer potholes, but I’m happier knowing that insects and animals have a better chance of crossing over to continue their livelihood activities on the opposite side.

We shout ‘Buon Camino’ to oncoming pilgrims tramping along under their hot backpacks. Poppies dot the verges and turn the fields red.

Signage, what there is of it, faces the opposite direction. We must rely on the cell phone and google maps. Simon is navigating, which leaves me free to learn how to operate my bike properly. I am beginning to like my trekking bike very much, particularly the boosting battery. It’s still cumbersome, and staying onboard while skidding on rolling pebbles is becoming my speciality.

With a lot of help from my booster I keep up with Simon as we cruise into the ancient city of Viterbo. Her grandiose architecture and rich history are as enticing as her boiling thermal baths. It is too warm to think of submerging ourselves in hot water, so we go directly to the bike shop for a spare tube in case of a puncture. Can’t believe I didn’t think of bringing one. Fixing a puncture features low on my skills list. The thought of a puncture gives me the shudders, especially if it happens in the countryside where large white maremmano-abruzzese sheepdogs find cyclists threatening. You don’t want to be hunching down with a tire when a dog shows up.

The town of Montefiascone is located high on the rim of a volcano with a fantastic view over the crater lake of Bolsena. Getting up this small back-road is so steep I worry about flipping over backwards! I am leaning forward, chest on the cross bar and zigzagging desperately trying to lesson the gradient. All I can say is ‘thank you’ to turbo battery power. Simon pushes his bike slowly up the near vertical slope.

There is absolutely no way I could do this ride without my e-bike assistant. We eventually reach the sweaty summit in time for a 3pm panino at Milioni il Caffè. Quaffing icy cold pineapple juice for the anti-inflammatory effects before flying downhill through the old oak forest into the crater. My speedometer records a top speed of 59,8 kph. My knees shake as I disembark in front of the convent in Bolsena.

The ancient town of Bolsena is on the shore of a huge round lake. Mother Superior makes us sit down in her reception room and tells us she is 90 years old, followed by a long story about the history of the Church in Bolsena. I’m not sure if her sense of smell still functions well, after a day of sweaty riding we must smell rather pungent. However, in perfect prose she explains the story of “Il miracolo” (the miracle).

“A priest from Bohemia, named Peter, passed by this place on his return from Rome to Prague in 1200, but he was having doubts about the bread and wine, what we call the Eucharist.

“Is it truly the body of Christ?” he wanted to know.

The following day as a visiting priest, he celebrated Mass in the Church. When he broke the Host (consecrated bread) blood fell from the bread onto his hands, on the cloth, and dripped down the altar to the marble floor below.

That expelled all doubt and Catholics have performed the Corpus Christie ever since”.

Our Mother Superior graciously showed us to our immaculate bedroom with a vaulted ceiling and windows overlooking the Church and piazza. We embalm our sunburned faces with scented moisturizer and sleep deeply, wrapped in crispy clean sheets. In the morning Mother stamps our credenziali before we fetch our bikes from the little shed at the end of a purple flowering pergola.

A statue of Madonna stands praying for us under an arch of blood red roses.

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Day 2 – Formello to Vetralla

Day 2 -Campagnano on Francigena pilgrimage

Doris from Bremen introduces herself to us outside the Chapel of the Madonna del Sorba. She is walking the pilgrimage with an Italian guide, north to south like you’re supposed to. We are going contro-signage, so taking the backward facing arrows when we see them. She kindly offered me accommodation when I reach Bremen. I’m not sure where Bremen is exactly.

The story of the Madonna del Sorba

One of the stories of this hilltop chapel, is this… a young swineherd noticed that one of his pigs went off alone every day for a couple of hours, so he decided to follow it and found it sitting on its haunches praying to an icon of the Madonna in the branches of a large Sorbus tree. An apparition of the Madonna appeared to the swineherd and told him to run and tell the villagers in Formello to build a chapel on this high spot.

“If the villagers don’t believe you” she said “I will do a miracle to convince them”.

 He ran to tell the villagers but, as expected, they did not believe him. So he put his mutilated hand into his pocket and pulled it out completely whole. (Early 1400’s). It was a convent for nuns after that.


The priest stamps our credenziali passports for us. Flowers rampage all over the garden, and the Madonna statue stands quietly praying under her rosy arch.

“She is praying for YOU” says the inner voice.

We ride on through a vortex of white butterfly wings, up and down the farm roads. The terrain is steeply forested.

Campagnano di Roma

A little boy of about six years old holds up his small serious hand to stop me in the village piazza of Campagnano. He looks up at me with his clear-brown Italian eyes and asks: “is this a brand new bicicletta?” I nod and he touches it reverently with his small fingers until his mom drags him away.

I feel a pang of nostalgia thinking of my own boy celebrating his thirtieth birthday today so far away in Australia. He also loves bicycles.

The old Borgo of Campagnano was not well signposted. It is perched on a high spur above the valley and we can’t find a way down the northern cliffs. A man sits on a barrel and watches us pouring over the map. A woman comes out of the house with a broom and points to a gap in the walls and a track that vanishes over a ledge.

The inner voice screams “impossible” but my miraculous disk-brakes let me down the cliff track, only to be challenged by sinking sand at the bottom. The sandy road changes to gravel then to cracked tarmac. It takes a lot of concentration to dodge the potholes.

I’m having difficulty with the saddle but remember Rumi who said – If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished? A short rest stop at the dreamy Cascata di Monte Gelato (cascades) is worthwhile. The we’re off again at full speed onto a busy road towards Monterosi.

Monterosi

A man on the side of the road sends us to Trattoria da Angelica in Monterosi for lunch. Delicious wormlike “bighetti” pasta on the menu at a table set with starched white cloth and pink serviettes. We’re comfortably sitting on a lovely veranda drinking a glass of cold wine with sweaty hair pressed into a helmet shape. That’s something special in Italy, they almost always set the table properly with wine glasses and clean tablecloths.

Vetralla

Long curly-haired, vibrantly charming Giacomo welcomes us with open arms to his pilgrim hostel in Vetralla. He is one of the top organisers of the Francigena pilgrimage.

He shows us up steep wooden steps to a little attic space squeezed under a simmering hot roof. The mattresses are bare but for a strip of tissue paper down the center. We have left our sleeping bags at home. But it’s clean and there is a big shower off the lobby downstairs. Showering after a day on the dusty road is both necessary and therapeutic.

Giacomo sends us to a pilgrim friendly restaurant nearby where we eat from a special pilgrim menu. Simple food but it tastes divine washed down with a cup of wine. 58 kilometers today not without pain.

The room is a furnace under the eaves. Simon lay down on the bare mattress and covered himself with the tissue paper and is already snoring loudly. Eventually I give up on sleep and climb down to the foyer area where I plop a couple of chair cushions on the cool floor. Gingerly lay down my aching body, arms crossed over my chest and meditate until morning.

see the route here

 

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Day 1 – Marino to Formello – via Rome.

Leanne Talbot Nowell - Formello

Rome the Eternal city – “Aaah bella Roma” once you are caught in her seductive “La Dolce Vita” embrace, you will become an overly emotional lover who can never leave. At approximately 2800 years old everything from the damp decay of frescoed tombs to her high-flying arches and golden orbs on moonlit domes, from baroque pink skies to the polished marble of palace floors, Roma is glorious. And a bit shabby.

We have done about 35 kms since Marino this morning, to reach Ponte Milvio bridge. The search is on for lunch. A veranda table at a restaurant VOY is available. Soon we are digging into a tasty bowl of paccheri pasta with a rich melanzane (aubergine) sauce topped with fresh mint and sun-dried tomatoes. The restaurateur runs off to the supermarket to fetch us some fruit juice after we declined his wine. Groggy cycling in Rome could prove fatal.

The hot Lazio sun burns our backs all afternoon as we ride out of Rome on zigzag roads into the northern countryside. It is quite challenging to find a bridge over/under the highway. A truck comes speeding around a sharp corner behind us and screeches to a bumpy halt inches from my rear reflector. I feel the heat of the engine surge over my shoulder in a smelly cloud of burning rubber.

I try to pedal standing up on account of the bum pain.

Via Francigena

A well timed SPRITZ dulls the pain in Formello. Simon has booked us in at a nice B&B.

Nonna Loretta shows us to our room and sells us two “pilgrim passports” for five euro each. They’re called “credenziale”, very much like the one you get for the Camino di Santiago. A folded card for pilgrims on their way from Canterbury to Rome. We are going in the opposite direction but we can still collect stamps from holy places along our inverted route. The passport also allows you special access to sleep in certain Convents and Monasteries. There are discounts on pilgrim meals at restaurants too. Make sure you get that when you do the camino di Francigena.

We eat salad at Osteria degli Angeli, the only guests in the dimly lit piazza in Formello. A drag queen unexpectedly appears from the great door of the municipal palace dressed in black lace and a massive wig. She looks down on us from the top of a flight of stairs and proclaims her existence with a gutsy howl “HAAAEEEOOW!!!” The sound echoes around the stone walls and into the dark streets. Frightening off the ghosts of Veii and us.

Back in our room at Nonna Loretta’s the soft bed absorbs the day’s agony like a sponge. Every part of my body is hurting except my feet.

Day 1. Sixty kilometers.

Click this to see the route we took today

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Andiamo

Andiamo Appia Antica by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Andiamo

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.

Appia Antica

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.

Roman gelato

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.

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Ready steady

Ready steady - Madonna de 'u Sassu

Ready steady….Good news! Simon has changed his plans so he can ride with me for the first week of the tour. At great cost to his reputation. Usually at this time he goes bike riding for a week with his ‘men only’ group (every year for 20 years). They are all horribly cross that he’s chosen to ride with his wife instead. Proof of marital love if there was ever one!

We have decided to leave on Saturday 26th May 2018. Simon will ride with me as far as Florence. From there I will go on towards Oslo by myself. The route begins to show up on the map with a smudge of magic marker. We spend hours at the dinner table discussing plans and options. Tyrone sends me a google-suggested route that measures about 2500 kms. I baulk at the thought!

But it looks super easy doesn’t it – simply follow the compass directly north all the way to Norway.

Panniers are side bags

I wander down the giant aisles of a huge sports equipment store gaping at all the bicycle paraphernalia. Shelves are loaded with confusing metallic and rubbery things that make up a bicycle. Compounded by a variation of each piece according to brand name. I need panniers (side bags) and tools. The sporty young male shop assistants take no notice of me. I guess they are thinking this woman must have wandered out of the pilates area into the bike zone by mistake.

According to the lists from the cycling-gurus websites, clothing needs to be light and durable. Italian cycling sportswear is not at all modest. The racks are filled with flashy lycra tops and tights that look tiny until you stretch them onto your body. These padded tights feel like you’re wearing a big nappy. Strappy push-up brassieres come in luminous green, pink or orange, which gives the impression of paradisal fruits hanging off your chest. For the bust-conscious Italian woman this is exactly the look she wants.

My fruits are more subtropical than paradisal, even so wearing a bright colour could attract the attention of robbers and rapists along the roadside. One should look like a paradox on wheels – blend into the scenery but be visible to drivers. Noticeably unattractive.

Packing

The packing pile grows steadily bigger on the spare-room bed. A watercolour paint box and brushes, camera and lenses, a laptop computer on which to write a blog and edit photographs (under the kind instruction of Sian Owen), a leather-bound journal of hand-made paper to fill with paintings, an old smartphone with charging cable, waterproofs, energy snacks and a mysterious multi-tool gadget.

Two large e-bicycle manuals full of technically instructive information lie on my bedside table unopened. Some of you cyclists will pick on me for riding an electric bike. In defense all I can say is a glad YAY. Simon will be riding his ‘normal’ bike….let’s see how that compares.

Finally all the goodies are neatly packed into zip-lock bags and carefully inserted into the two panniers. A squirt of adrenaline sends my heart flipping like a fish. To calm it down, I go for a tentative practice ride around Marino. At the caffè near the central piazza our friend Roberto who sells porchetta at street-food stand waves me over to ask why I’m riding a bicycle. I tell him and the other characters sitting around under the umbrellas they all laugh and say “che follia” (what craziness).

At the corner next to the post office, is a stone bust of the “Madonna de’u Sassu“. Painted all around in a lovely tropical melon colour. She has been there since 1596 blessing travellers in transit between Rome and Naples.

She gives me a stoney look and asks – “What are you doing Leanne?”

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1 – THE BIKE RIDE

Leanne Talbot Nowell . the bike

This is about a 4200 km ‘solo’ bike ride, from Marino to Oslo in Norway, in the summer of 2018. It will be quoted from my daily diary kept during the trip. It was quite difficult to find enough time to paint along the way, so photographs had to suffice. I did some paintings of course, but now is a good time to go back on that track and fill in the gaps. Many of you have asked to come along for the trip and you’re most welcome. So hop on your virtual bikes and let our bicycle story begin!

Getting the bike…

“È cosi!” – it’s like that! – He throws up his hands, fingers splayed wide in supplication.

We are inside a swish bicycle shop in Rome, the athletic-looking manager shakes his smooth head “You most certainly will NOT be able to have an electric-bike delivered for at least three months Signora! There is a backlog of orders and a grand shortage of electric bikes, so if you want one then you must wait until mid-June… ”.

It’s April already, and to wait two more months for a bike will be way too late in the year to begin a long trip. It will be too hot to cycle through Italy in July and by the time I reach Norway, it will be freezing.

We leave the shop feeling bitterly disappointed. But soon a surge of relief neutralizes that uncomfortable feeling. Our couch is quite comfortable after all. I flop down into my usual position and tell myself “Never mind, there’ll be another opportunity in the future”.

But my intrepid husband Simon won’t accept such an easy defeat. He searches online and after some setbacks and phone calls, finds a CUBE trekking bike. Apparently just the bike for me. Correct frame size, electric, with all the necessary components. I don’t know exactly what components are, but if they are necessary then I had better have them. He immediately orders the bike and has it shipped home.

One week later…

It has arrived in a huge box, and I think Simon is more excited about it than I am. The ‘bicicletta’ (bike) now stands waiting calmly for departure day, glinting with red reflectors in the dark grotto below our apartment. Tall and elegant, her machined proportions as perfectly balanced as a race horse.

1 . THE BIKE RIDE - Leanne Talbot Nowell

But the sight of her makes me quake. After months of dreaming about the ride to Oslo to see my children, enthusiasm seems to be evaporating and my imagination is running wild with dreadful scenarios. I lie awake at night thinking of things that could go wrong, convinced something unimaginable will happen.

Why?

My parents are absolutely horrified: “How silly to risk your life like that, when you can fly to Oslo in a few short hours… what for? Now that you have grandchildren to enjoy?” In contrast, my adult children who are all adventurous themselves – but not reckless mind you – cheer me on with a resounding “Go for it Aunty Mom!” (that’s what they call me to get my attention when I’m being deaf).

My friends roll their eyes and ask “Are you nuts, why do you want to ride all the way to Oslo?” I defensively mention the story of Anne Mustoe, a retired headmistress of a posh English school, who rode a bicycle around the world a couple of times. Her stories of solitary adventures were proof that a woman of my age could journey alone, and so she inspired me to make a pilgrimage of my own. People say “why go alone, why not ride with a friend or a group – go on an organised tour for heaven’s sake!?”

I ask around if someone would like to come with me, but nobody has the time for a two month joyride. Some have offered to join me for a day or two when they can. Life is short at my age and delaying an opportunity for fear of loneliness may lead to regrets later. I want to be outside, feeling the wind, the sun, the joy and amazement of going somewhere new.

The reason for going is certainly not about finding myself. I already have enough of myself in my painting studio, actually too much. I need to escape my ego, get ahead of it and leave myself behind. You will find out the real reason later.

Picking the destination was easy, our daughter and son are living in Oslo, and two of our exquisite grandchildren. To make it sound like a work trip, I will take my art materials and camera along and paint the scenery along the way.

Up here in Marino perched on the edge of a steep volcano, bicycles are rare. According to the locals either you are too poor to afford a car or you are a very sporty type who joins a club and rides out with a fleet of cyclists wearing yellow jerseys. An older woman like me, riding a trekking bike into the far distant northern realms is “no woman of ours”. They probably think this is a disguised attempt to escape my marriage.

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50

Geraniums by Leanne Talbot Nowell

The gift-pot of geraniums is a sunny pink this morning, shining under a clean blue sky. My painting table is speckled with food dye. I sometimes use it to paint intense colour. Unfortunately it fades after a short time, but fading away is a release from the museum life. It gives one a sense of daring and freedom to create.

Creativity has been passed down the line in our family. When I was a teenager, at home on holiday from boarding school, my Mom (who is an artist) would ask me to make tea when her friends came over to visit (multiple times per day). If the tea tray was shoddily done, I was told to take it back to the kitchen and “do it again – with love!”.

In Italy we have a range of exceptional creativity from the kitchiest of kitch all the way beyond chic. One such example is our park. Yesterday Simon and I went for a clandestine wander down to the tower and bridge. The greens are recovering in a jungle of creativity after the rains. Fig trees have sprouted the most tender leaves and new fig-flowers. Exuberant bushes, blossoming trees, grasses, mosses and ferns are festooning the valley. We waded through them to reach the stream and checked under the bridge for trolls.

After 50 days in the nest, I feel some new ideas beginning to hatch. One of them looks like it could be a creative change to this post. I’m thinking of illustrating my big bike ride book instead. That would signify departing from Marino but taking you along for the ride by posting illustrations as we go. Don’t worry, it will be more fun. And I promise to “do it with love!”.

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The good – the bad and the ugly.

Front door - Leanne Talbot Nowell

We have two entrances, one front and one back. You may think it normal, but in this neighbourhood people usually manage with just one. The flip side of an extra door is a bigger portion of any condominium bill.

You won’t believe me but when we first moved in fourteen years ago there was an open drain carrying the neighbourhood black water down the street. There was a grid over it, but you could see the floaters making their way to who knows where! However, after a plumbing leakage under the communal steps at our back entrance a new pipe was installed. It mercifully extended to the street and put an end to that rat infested drain.

To settle the blame equally and fairly on all contributors, Simon and our Plumber made an investigative tour of the adjoining apartments. A dose of blue dye was flushed down each loo, while someone watched to see if it appeared in the broken pipe at the other end – signifying a connection. Eleven apartments were thus accounted for. We have a loo, like everyone else, but because we have two doors we had to pay half of the total bill. The other ten apartment owners divided the remainder between them.

Simon is referred to as “il Tedesco” and considered good at billing. Nobody keeps track of numbers like he does. People discuss, argue, blame but he writes everything down and makes them sign it before we begin a communal project.

Going up the front steps now – to the door (on the right, in case you come to visit). There are four types of people sharing our walls. Anna who always does the right thing no matter what. Then there are some who do the right thing so long as everyone else is doing it. There are of course, the egoists who don’t feel they must comply because they know better. When Simon says pay up, they generally do but only after threats, fines and long delays. The fourth type are the operette – the dramatic women who make it their business to stir up trouble. Having a punishment complex so severe they are willing to get themselves into trouble rather than let someone else get away breaking the rules.

Actually, there is also the fifth type, the unreasonable person who just realised her chimney doesn’t exist anymore, after the roof was redone about thirty years ago. She doesn’t actually have a fireplace, but now she is demanding to have the chimney reopened at Simon’s expense. She often sends her husband to argue for it.

Our neighbours are probably similar to yours. The four types, plus that special one, have the same attitude towards the quarantine regulations. Going up those steps now – to Government level (they’re also neighbours of someone) – which of the five types is yours?

The painting is boring – like our entrance. Megan said I should paint it anyway, to complete the picture.

Marino covid-19 numbers are 87 positive, one more than yesterday, and 13 deaths altogether. Italian numbers are worse again! 3370 new infections and 437 deaths according to Worldometer. We are trekking down a mountain range, not skiing down a peak.

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Secrets

Entrance to the secret garden

I realise this painting turned out overly colourful. I walked down to the secret garden to paint the greenness of the greens and pinky-purpleness of this magical tree. I think it’s called a redbud tree? A black dog ran and jumped up at me, so I patted his head. Then tried not to pat my own head until I got home and washed that hand. The sad effects of covid.

There is a secret tunnel in Marino. It is mind blowingly awesome. Ugo Onerati took us to see it a couple of years ago. We were lucky as it has been locked ever since. My friend Marina, the artist who owns an art shop on the main street, played in there with her cousins when she was a kid. Her uncle used it as a ‘cantina’ for storing his wine and olive oil. It was built in the early Roman times as a big water cistern.

A man went to buy wine from Marina’s uncle in the 60’s and found it interesting. It was half-full of mud and debris so they excavated and to their astonishment uncovered an extraordinary treasure. Ugo took us down into the ancient, dimly lit tunnel. We walked slowly for about 50m with torches. Shadowy paintings of figures loomed on the side walls. At the very end, subtly lit from below, was the most incredible scene. An exquisite painting covering the entire end wall, a fresco of the MITHRAS cult.

Profound awe made my knees go weak. I almost went down on them. We gazed at the colourful scene in stunned silence. There is more to it than meets the eye. Nobody knows what it means, the cult was so secret there is no record of their philosophy. Although sacred sites with sculptures and paintings of the same symbolic scene are found all over the Roman Empire. However, this one in Marino is the most beautiful.

To describe it in a sentence…”A man wearing a pink layered tunic is stabbing a bull in the neck. His celestial blue cape is a full of stars, a snake and a dog are lapping up the blood and a scorpion is biting the bulls testicles”. The religion, thought to have originated in Iran, was practiced by Roman soldiers until about the 5th century. Men only.

Mitreo Marino Laziale

Simon and I cin-cinned our glasses of red and white wine, to Rome on the auspicious occasion of her 2773rd birthday this evening. It all began when twin boys inherited the title of leader. Rome would have been called Remo, if Romulus hadn’t killed his brother Remus for merely jumping over the wall. The story repeats itself, kaleidoscoping into the future. Here we are now in the European Union with our imaginary walls. Covid-19 shining a subtle light on the scenario.

Today’s painting depicts a stone wall with an excavated doorway. I like to think my studio walls were built from the stones of that doorway. Doorway walls.

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Rainy day

A rainy day - watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

If I swivel my chair to the left, this is the view across the valley. Nine Roman pines stand like soldiers in the rain. I see there are only eight trees in the painting…oops! Simon is a bit restless because he can’t sunbathe on his deckchair at lunch time. For lunch we had homemade ravioli filled with radicchio and speck. They were made at the farmer’s home, not ours, but I made zucchini to go with it. Since Simon is working so much these days we don’t drink wine.

Marino Laziale sits on top of a crusty old lava flow. It slopes toward Rome with valleys full of vineyards on either side. We live on the edge. There is plenty of naturally bubbly mineral water springing from a crack in the volcano. Our friends always comment on the fizz and sweetish taste of the tap water. Washing hands with carbonated water works up a lovely lather. Some years ago, Tyrone was taking a shower when the water changed to wine. He came out of the bathroom looking bewildered – “Mom, something weird just happened!”. Then we heard shouts from our neighbours “è un miracolo..un MIRACOLO!!!”. Apparently the village plumber had pulled the wrong lever, and instead of the wine flowing into the fountain on the piazza (as it does once a year), it went domestic and filled a hundred toilet cisterns instead.

The Sagra dell’Uva – festival of grapes – is the pride and joy event of Marino. The town goes all out for the first weekend in October. About 30 000 wine enthusiasts fill their cups from the fountain. So if you’re planning a trip to visit us please try to fit that in. The locals open their wine cellars and you can drink plonk for four days. They also perform a magnificent procession of flag throwering, marching bands, and at least one hundred townsfolk dressed in elaborate historical costume. A white horse brings the handsome Marcantonio Colonna trotting to the piazza, to declare his victory over the Turks at the battle of Lepanto. Simon tells me it was the 7th October 1571.

At night Marino transforms itself, softly illuminated by yellow lamps, into a quaint medieval Borgo. Nobody is out, but you can hear many voices floating from the windows. There is talk of the festival being cancelled this year. My phone pings with a message from the Mayor on the municipal app. 86 positive cases, 12 sick at home, 11 deaths and 7 recovered.

As we know from the Spanish flu pandemic 1918-19 (which originated in America actually), that it came in three waves, and the second wave was the most deadly. So let us proceed with great caution.

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Graffiti on the Wind

Tower in Marino

Swifts are swooping around us – like graffiti on the wind. From high up here on the terrace we watch them flash by, feeding on gnats that swarm up from the ravine in the late afternoons. As evening deepens, those inky black exclamation points go silent and turn to bats. I call it the changing of the guard.

Every day after siesta Simon and I make a quick dash down the road into the parco dell’Acquasanta to unkink our veins. Some meters beyond the washhouse the footpath diverges and if you keep to the right fork it soon ends at a grotesque medieval watchtower. Torre d’Ammonte. Sadly “reduced by atmospheric conditions” it stands teetering and lonely as a gravestone. Flapping pigeons build their nests in holes in the rocky walls. There are some major cracks that grow every year, slowly opening up like a black tulip, and brambles have woven a thick basket around the base. Speckled lizards lie around seemingly frozen, perhaps they’re footmen waiting for sleeping beauty in the tower to wake up.

Hidden nearby is a most intriguing old archway. A low round gateway cut through the “tuff” (volcanic-rock) wall. It leads to a secret garden. The entrance is shaded by a pink flowering tree, and a fig has grown over the wall to disguise it. One must wade through the weeds to see more. Inside is a grassy, roofless space about the size of a tennis court. At the far end are some very high but shallow caves cut into the cliff that forms the base of Marino. The caves look strange, as if a giant wielded his sword and carved out two tall rooms, one for himself and the other for his wife. This was one of the many stone mines in the valley. Our house must have been built from this stone, the same stuff as the colosseum! All of it seeping radon.

I have put off painting this old tower due to its ugliness. It comes from a scary time in the 14th century when the town was in danger of being attacked by bandits. It is useless now. I suppose for the past hundreds of years young men had the duty of sitting up there to watch for the enemy. They must have wondered where the swifts came from every spring, and wished they could fly like them. Now the young men of the town have been given the duty to stay at home to avoid the enemy, and probably wish to swiftly fly away.

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40 orbital loops

Leanne Talbot Nowell - Three kids on a rock

Zooming way out to get a forty day overview.

Something that all astronauts talk about when they see Earth from space for the first time, is an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. They see this beautiful blue ball floating in deep space, lonely, delicate and miraculous. Three astronauts landed on Earth on Friday after more than 200 days on the ISS. The Russian team who pulled them out of the descent module had to undergo quarantine prior to the landing to ensure the virus was not passed to the crew. For the astronauts, instead of going home to welcoming crowds and family hugs, are on their way into quarantine to protect themselves.

Simon wants me to remind any non-latino’s that QUARANTA means 40, so a quarantine is supposed to last about forty days.

He very kindly rode his bike with me for the first week of my 60 day journey from Rome to Oslo. An excerpt taken from the dairy:

“A thrilling downhill ride brings us to the dark dining hall of La Dogana (Customs) on the border between Lazio and Tuscany. We dig into a bowl of delicious black olives, crusty salt-less bread and peppery olive oil, while waiting for the green stinging-nettle risotto being stirred in a copper pot by a chef in a tall white hat. A log fire burns under a russet brick arch. Galileo Galilei was once miserably quarantined here on his way to Rome. There was an outbreak of the plague. He had been commanded to present himself to the Papal Inquisition. Having been accused of imposing on God, the extra burden of a moving planet and judged to be “vehemently suspect of heresy”. However, he escaped corporal punishment and was put under house arrest for the remainder of his days.”

The numbers of covid-19 infections in Italy decreased a little yesterday, but there is something weird about the worldometer stats. We’ve given up trying to figure them out. I spoke to my parents who are not complaining yet, but it might be necessary for them to stay in strict lockdown (no space walks) until September!? Like astronauts on the International Space Station.

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Pops of joy

Pink Dalea by Leanne Talbot Nowell

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.”
― Rudyard Kipling,

I have spend many years, a small fortune and vast amount of energy on not-quite mastering the art of keeping plants alive in pots on my terrace. Often I feel more like an undertaker than a gardener – so many plants had to be carried down the stairs in a black bag. In the enthusiastic spring I usually spend a glorious day at the garden shop and come home loaded with demanding plants who are entirely at my mercy. Then we bugger off somewhere for the summer holidays and Immaculata takes over as Angel of God.

There is very little help from God when you live in a pot. The Angel who owns you has all the power. With power comes responsibility. Something the leaders in the world are being tested for at the moment. On the last day before lockdown I bought a bottle of number one. It’s plant food that smells like garum. It seems to do miracles and the plants are bursting their pots. Weeds are proliferating too, and I’ve changed my regulations and have allowed them to take root and grow. We must admire their tenacity, as that of all migrants. They cover the barren soil with lushesnous.

Immaculata brought me this Dalia in a small tight pot. The flowers are a buzzy whorl of petals which attract a white butterfly called Melanargia arge. I painted it (suggestively) for Kevin and Stella Cockburn. They are doing good work for their people in South Africa. In fact many of you are doing good work and being so generous.

As are our children and their partners (who we consider our children too). They are the flowers – pops of joy – in our soul gardens. Precious, shining, hope. This painting began as a portrait of them, and over the day of penciling then rubbing out, this is the result. A bouquet. Obviously my brain is in need of a dose of number one before attempting a proper family portrait.

Painting is like making a garden, it’s not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful!’ and sitting in the shade.

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Simon

Simon Jutz, watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

For thirty seven days now, Simon has taken a lunchtime sunbath. Except for two rainy days. This is a portrait of a sailor on his deck. The shorts are imaginary. Another option would be ‘the diplomat’ at the dining-room table, leaning on his elbows, a precarious library of books as backdrop. The hanging shelves loaded with dusty collections of stones (he’s a geologist) and objects d’art. He could also be portrayed as a ‘chef’ bending into the fridge, or sitting feet up in the kitchen wicker chair writing emails. Or a romantic propped up in bed with his hot laptop, watching german films. Or slumped in his big yellow chair gazing at the “tagesschau” on tv. An icy glass of red Aperol Spritz in one hand and piece of mouldy biltong in the other.

Simon has been the perfect quarantine partner. He allows me to paint all day without interruption, and never judges my paintings good or bad. We set the table for lunch and supper. Even if it’s simply a matter of bread and cheese with a glass of our best wine. He prefers watching series on tv that feature beautiful women. No sport and no violence. He does the shopping once every 10 days. I do the cleaning once every 10 days.

We can’t understand why the number of new infections went up again yesterday. With this level of lockdown, we should be home free. Anyway, our PM says we can look forward to phase 2 from the 3rd of May. That’s another 16 days to go before we obey the next set of regulations. The short dash down to the tower and back is becoming quite hazardous. People unleash their pitbulls down there.

I can feel what’s left of my brain morphing in my head.

How would you portray your days?

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Where are we going?

Watercolour shrine

In the stairway is a small shrine where a candle burns at times of crisis. Coming upstairs now to write this, I plucked the postcard of the Madonna & child, that was stuck in this little shrine some years ago. Top right hand corner in small print reads: Santa Maria “ad Transitum” fresco from the school of Giotto, Church of Domine Quo Vadis.

We must have picked it up on one of our many Sunday bike rides down the Appian Way to Rome. It’s a fascinating place, dedicated to the Roman God of Return called Rediculus. Travellers would stop at the sanctuary for a blessing before embarking on a long and dangerous journey. The Appian way leads to Greece, Egypt and the East. If the traveller returned they would stop and gives thanks to the God for protecting them. Later a Christian Church was built on the spot. According to the legend, when Saint Peter attempted to escape Rome before he was crucified, on his way out of town he came across Jesus walking in the opposite direction. He asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going? “Domine, quo vadis?“. Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again ” Eo Romam iterum crucifigi“.

I woke up this morning with no idea what to write about this strange hybrid painting. Then this spontaneous discovery of the connection to quo vadis! Where are we going as people? Nowhere for now. But the question is a deeper one for the whole of humanity….QUO VADIS?

Marino is 20 kms from the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. We have 96 covid-cases now. Only one person has recovered so far. Recovery seems to take a long time. Our good friend who is working in the Netherlands, contracted the disease a month ago is now off oxygen. His oxygen saturation is almost back to normal. The doctors cannot tell him if he is ‘clinically’ healed. The test came back as a false negative. During the illness he suffered from confusion ‘unable to follow my own thoughts and felt at the end’…

578 deaths in Italy yesterday, and fewer infections than usual.

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Lofty perch

studio sink

I know you prefer a bit of fantasy but today I have painted a corner of my studio. A suggestion from Brigitta, and I thought it a good idea to make a few more loft paintings before finishing. I’m thinking of ending this painting diary on day 40 ? That’s if I don’t catch the virus and pop off before then. Anyway, today is day 34 …more than a month in quarantine, which led me to look up day 34 in my bike-ride-diary 2018. Here is an excerpt – on the Rhine river in Germany…

— “Simon is arriving on Saturday to keep me company for the weekend. I’m very pleased, but no doubt he will be shocked at my vagabond appearance.

After a month of sun and wind on my bike all day, my face has darkened to a motley brown (nose in particular), but my glasses have protected my eye skin, so that’s all white, with pink piggy eyes (allergies). Arms are brown sticks with pronounced muscles, legs are tanned only on the back of the calves, and I still have tan stripes on the white feet. Back of the ankles are a mess from pedal bites. The hand bones seem very pronounced, and I have a vice grip!

As for my evening clothes, I wear the same stretch pants after my shower every night. It gets a bit cool at dinner, which is mostly on a terrace restaurant (and there are mosquitoes). The nice little frock I brought with me for the evenings is far too short for the leg tan, I look ridiculous in it.

My hair…oh dear! In Italian – “Un casino”

This morning after the church bells gonged and gonged until I woke up at 6 am, then painted a new sign for my handlebar bag. It has a transparent pocket for a map. The other sign was dull and never triggered interest or conversation from anyone. So I made a very cheerful watercolour, with the Italian flag in one corner and the Norwegian in the other, and wrote Roma – Oslo.” —

Two years later and I’m in the extreme opposite situation! After a month of being indoors…my face is motley pink…arms flabby stumps…and so on. Only similarity is the “cheerful watercolour” activity, but I wish I could say Rome to Oslo!

Instead you have a picture of a tap. Simon and I bought the marble basin (ex church blessing basin) at the Porta Portese Sunday market in Rome. We also found this relief sculpture of the angels there. It was painted with thick orange paint, and Megan and I spent hours cleaning and picking it all off. Underneath we found this marvellously detailed clay artwork. On the little table is a mosaic we found in Tunisia. The rest of the studio is a mess, a bit like my hair – un casino!

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The Faraway tree

forest kids by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Every morning I climb up the steps to the loft with high intentions. But I must admit choosing a subject to paint within visual reach of my perch is becoming a real challenge. After an intensive month of quarantine, my enthusiasm for the neighbours walls and/or pot plants, is beginning to wane. That’s why I have let my imagination run away with me, into an old natural forest to play with my grandchildren. They called to me like they always do “NONNA LEE-LEE !” – “watch out those baby dinosaurs have nasty biting teeth, quickly climb the faraway tree with us!” As I hobbled over the roots, tears of joy blurred the painting.

Immaculata, our sadly missed ironing-lady, knocked at the back door and gave me two flowering pot plants as a sweet Easter gift. A while back she tearfully told me the story of her life. She fell in love with a petrol attendant at a local garage. Her father, a stern man, caught them in the act of having a conversation and furiously dragged her home by the hair. She was forbidden to visit anybody. However, the quarantine measures failed and the love affair blossomed. Finally, at the age of sixteen, she ran away to live with her lover in his mother’s house.

Her parents disowned her, and she became a servant (her own words) to her new husband’s family. She said it was the biggest mistake she ever made. Her parents never spoke to her again, and she has never travelled. She’ll be 70 years old in May.

Marino has 79 casi positivi of covid-19. We received a notice on our municipal app last night – a new regulation regarding permission to go to the supermarket. Only one person from the family unit can go and shop, according to the first letter of your name of course. We must show our identity cards and a printed paper with proof of residency. Name and address. Our ID cards are not the nice pink Italian one (Simon and I have diplomatic status in Italy). However, we do have a certificate of residency somewhere in the files. A second notice of the new regulations declared all parks, villas and children’s playgrounds to remain closed to the public until the 3 May 2020. I noticed yesterday on my 100 m walk to the tower and back, that someone has mowed down all the greens. The park looks much smarter, but we won’t be able to harvest any hare-ears, borage and dandelions if they don’t let Simon into the supermarket.

Talking about Simon, he listened to podcasts about sailing all day, and now he’s watching a documentary about yachts. He made a very delicious browned roast for lunch, with brown gravy and potatoes. We held off the wine for later. A black bird with an orange beak visits our terrace to eat the ripe olives that fall from the potted tree.

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The tree of hope

Mother under her tree, watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

My mother says she’s happy to sit on her green garden chair these quarantine days. Sheltered under the tree she planted in front of her home in South Africa. She is crocheting a blanket for her Great-grandchildren. A sunbird is feeding its baby in a little nest in the branches above. Butterflies flit passed while zebras and warthogs munch the lawn at her feet. There is a clear pecking order amongst the water birds on the pond. A lonely cormorant perches on the broken fountain spout. It dives under water and submarines around until it pops up unexpectedly between the lilies. The Egyptian geese couple for life, and make their fluffy nest amongst the bullrushes. My mother is an artist who lives alone with more than a thousand people in a spacious retirement village. Nobody is allowed to nip out for a walk. Although she sometimes finds a slice of cake or a packet of rusks pushed in through her kitchen window.

My Dad (82) and step-Mom live in a another retirement village. They are not allowed to walk either. They moved into their new home just days before the lockdown. They’ve dreamed of decorating their comfortable nest and had great plans for the garden. But without the help of a gardener my Dad can’t do much because of his bad knees. The curtains are too short for the window – amongst other things. So their dreams are on hold while they make the best of purgatory.

We are all stressing about why, what and when. Waking up in the night with trepidation. And why we eat too many Easter eggs? I can’t understand what all the fuss is about being fat. Now that I am fat, I feel quite well. A little more wobbly, that’s all.

Simon spent the entire day lying in the sun on the deck chair listening to travel podcasts. He went all over the world hearing about wonderful places, but the most interesting was the southern region of Germany, called Allgäu, where we would be right now had the virus not spread itself everywhere. Allgäu, in particular “Altusried” is the town where he now owns a holiday house. He inherited it from his mother last year. We lost both his parents within weeks of one another. It was a hard year. Their dying wish was that we keep the door open for the whole family. That applies to our friends too.

Our door remains closed in Marino. Today the mayor reported 79 cases of covid-19 infections in town. Yesterday there were 72, so the numbers are going up. All of the new infections are in a rehabilitation center. 6 people have died. We noticed a lot more traffic and movement today. People have had enough. Most of them live very intense and dramatic lives in small apartments.

In Italy we have lost almost twenty thousand people. 4092 new infections (that we know of) and 431 deaths today. The curve model looks more like a forest of trees, each day another tree – tall – shorter – taller – tall – short – tall.

I have branched out and painted from my imagination today. This picture features my Mom, but it’s also about all of us. Sitting with nature, doing something useful, being aware of our roots.