Posted on 2 Comments

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 2 Comments

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)

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 3 Comments

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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

 

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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?”

Posted on 1 Comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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!”.

Posted on 2 Comments

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 3 Comments

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?

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 1 Comment

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!

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on 2 Comments

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.

Posted on 2 Comments

Easter

Yellow primroses watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Happy Easter everyone! Here is a cheery painting as an Easter offering for you. Thought you might like some yellow primroses, even if most of you are on the autumn side of the Earth. New life and rebirth is the theme wherever you are.

I’m back from a surprising Easter egg hunt. Simon hid a gold bunny in the kitchen and it took me a while to find it in the bread box.

Greetings and love from us in Marino. Day 32 and counting!

Posted on Leave a comment

Yellow house

yellow house

Three hermits first lived in that yellow house across the road in 1682. It adds a splash of colour to the view from our breakfast nook. Now Ivan and his brother live there. They are migrant builders from Albania. It’s really nice to have them in the neighbourhood to do jobs that involve ladders and cement.

There is an ancient church “Sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Acqua Santa” in a grotto beneath the yellow house. Riccardo Tuccimei, the highly annoyed and hated nobleman who once lived in the house, demolished the bell tower. It was lovely with lots of small bells. Now we have one medium-sized bell that wakes us up on Sunday mornings.

But the story of the Church still rings with ancient mystery, and one such story is – a long time ago a man on his way to Naples lost control of his horse. It went galloping down the steep road and around the awkward corner. A beautiful apparition suddenly appeared. Actually it was the Madonna herself, holding out a bowl of water.

The horse immediately stopped to drink and the man was saved from an unfortunate accident. He gratefully proceeded with his journey but that night, in a dream, the saintly lady appeared to him again and told him to go back and look in the bushes there. He went and rummaged around at that exact spot. Ho hey! Lying in the bush was a beautiful fesco painting of the Madonna and Child! The experts have dated it to 4 AD. Although it has been touched up a few times, it is still mesmerizing on the high Altar of this grotto church.

If you get down on your knees in front of the Altar, you will find a trapdoor in the floor. Open it and you’ll find a well full of miraculous water. You can scoop it up into a cup with a long spoon. We sometimes join the nuns for the Procession of the “Madonna dell’Acqua Santa”. Everyone gets a tiny bottle of water to take home.

See a short film here.

Home is where we will be until the end of April, although next week certain shops will reopen. Bookshops and childrens clothes. After 31 days in quarantine the kids have grown out of their clothes already! Simon went to the shop yesterday according to the roster (first letter of the surname) and the lamb was sold out. No baking powder either. He came home with a shopping bag full of spinach.