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Day 12 – 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 11 – 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 10 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 9 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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Day 8 – 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 7 – 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.


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 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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Marino – Roma – Formello (Day 1)

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