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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 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