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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.