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

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 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.