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Day 5 – San Filippo to Buonconvento

Day 5 - Buonconvento - Leanne Talbot Nowell

The sky is dark to the point of purple and rain splatters our faces. Eventually we stop and take some miserable shelter under a tree. Passing trucks dash us with dirty road spray. The sky relents slightly so we make our soggy way to San Quirico d’Orcia in search of lunch.

The exquisite wild salad at the restaurant “Fonte all Vena” was hand-picked by a girl from Pienza. She roams the countryside searching for edible weeds and flowers. I eat the delicate salad with absolute reverence. It is delicious. Reminds me of my mom’s home grown salad.

The convoluted patchwork quilt of Tuscany is pretty gruelling to ride. You work hard pedalling up the round hills, each crowned with it’s quintessential villa. Then grab a quick breath while you freewheel down before the next uphill. I’m not complaining on my ebike of course. But something joyride day-trippers might not realise is the weight of the baggage puts a lot of extra tug on the battery power. Forcing you to ride on the lowest setting to make it last all day. This requires a lot more input from your legs to compensate.

Like the Camino di Santiago in Spain, the Francigena has long and convoluted patchwork history too.

Archbishop Sigeric the Serious, of Canterbury, took this route to Rome in the dark ages. He wrote a diary describing the 80 “mansions” where he stayed along the way. We don’t know his exact path but follow in spirit, searching for holy places to have our credenziale stamped. You must have stamps before you can accrue pilgrim privileges. Reading the stories from the past seem to connect your own story, making it an emotional experience.

Traditional religious culture may be fading, but it is a bitter-sweet goodbye. The grand emotions of soul and spirit, the marvels of epic poetry and ritual music traditions are being lost. The solid old churches are almost empty, but for tourists and a few old ladies or veiled nuns praying in the pews. We push open the wooden swing doors into the cool spicy gloom. The air is thick with the smell of beeswax candles on burnt-out racks.

A solemn Jesus hangs high under his pale crown. When you see him like this it is hard to imagine him walking around or having a good laugh with his friends.

Buonconvento

We have arrived in Buonconvento this evening. A nice girl is allowing us to overnight in her sister’s apartment. She suggests we go to a pizzeria just a short walk away for dinner. Feeling very hungry for pizza, we go directly there. The waitress, with a mouth puffed up like a pie crust, tells us “all the tables are occupied, you must wait 20 minutes!”

From the entrance we can see a couple of empty tables. Nevertheless, we wait.

Forty minutes later we ask another more friendly looking waiter if we can go inside. He says “prego” and instructs the crusty waitress to seat us. She reluctantly shows us to a table next to a long table where a twelve-year-old is celebrating her birthday with fifty shrieking little girlfriends.

Simon politely orders a bottle of water.

An hour passes. No water. The party table noise is deafening. We cannot hold a conversation. Finally, we ask the manager if it would be possible to move to a quieter part of the room.

He says “prego, come with me” and takes us through a door to an almost empty dining room pleasantly decorated with sunflowers.

Eventually the water and pizza arrive and we eat it with gusto. Hoping the pizza hasn’t been negatively modified by an ill feeling waitress.

Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII of Luxembourg died very inconveniently of smallpox in Buonconvento, on the way back from his coronation in Rome in year 1313.

Morning of day 6.

My body is stiff in the mornings, but after a few turns of the pedals, the old joints click into place and my brain boots up. Kicking my legs out straight help my kneecaps jump back into place.

We are sitting at a pavement cafe with our bikes chained together like two skinny black horses. A fat-faced cook wrapped in a milk-white apron and a tall chef’s hat, a ‘Carabinieri’ policeman in his fine black military uniform with a vivid red stripe down the outside leg, and a road worker dressed in yellow fluorescents sit at the table next to us. They gesture and guffaw over the chances of the national soccer team, the Azzurri (blues) winning the World Cup Football tournament to be held in Russia next week. Betting is hysterically popular in Italy. A woman sweep dust into the fresh breeze with a proper witches stick broom.

(ILLUSTRATION STILL IN PROCESS OF PAINTING)

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Day 4 – Bolsena to Bagni San Filippo

Day 4 cycling the tunnel

Yesterday was a sore day. This morning both my Brooks saddle and the scenery are breathtaking. We set off after a hearty goodbye to our nun, and take the back road up and out of the crater. Stopping to look over our shoulders at Lake Bolsena who winks at us with one blue eye.

Simon always reads information from the first word to the very end. In museums it is not uncommon for us to spend an entire day. He reads travel guides from index to glossary. Now stops to read a mossy inscription on a plaque in the middle of the forest which says “in 1505 the Pope Julius ll, asked the Confederates Superiors Alumnae, to give permission to Canon Peter von Hertenstein to guide two hundred Swiss soldiers and their captain Kaspar von Silenen ” pro custody palati nostri” (look after our palaces). They walked this route to Rome, entering from the north through the Porta Popolo on the afternoon of 22 January 1506. Blessed by the Pope in St. Peter’s Basilica, the guards began their work that same day and still serve in the Apostolic Palace.” (Dressed in their bizarre red and yellow uniforms designed by Michelangelo).

The forest track is badly eroded. It’s hard not to sit on the torture seat. Seems the blisters have deflated, but what remains is not describable.

Fright

The tunnel was unexpected, a frightful 88 meters of velvet darkness and glaring headlights. Suddenly we are in it, together with the enormous boom of unseen motor vehicles.

Dark glasses render me instantly blind, squealing like a bat out of hell when my feet flip off the pedals and flounder around. The echoing of truck engines roar ever closer, louder and louder! Careering on through the dark with pounding heart, I yell for Simon but he is wearing his earphones and calmly proceeds. Eventually a pinpoint of solid light appears ahead. The shining spot grows steadily until we shoot out into the peaceful green. A feeling of being born again into the blue of a sunny spacious heaven. Laughing with relief and making promises to never ride into a tunnel like that again.

Lunch

A thrilling downhill brings us to the dark hall of La Dogana (Customs) on the border between Lazio and Tuscany, we dig into a bowl of delicious black olives, crusty salt-less bread and peppery olive oil while waiting for our green nettle risotto is patiently stirred in a copper pot by a chef in a tall white hat. A log fire burns under a russet brick arch. Galileo Galilei was miserably quarantined here for ten days on his way to Rome. There was an outbreak of the plague. He had been commanded to present himself to the Papal Inquisition. Having been accused of imposing on God the extra burden of a moving planet and judged to “vehemently suspect of heresy”. However, he escaped corporal punishment and was put under house arrest for the remainder of his days.

The place is full of men eating. They tell us they are truck drivers and commercial salesmen. It is a huge advantage as a foreigner to be able to speak some Italian. Almost like being able to see colours in the dark. They gesture as they speak holding little glasses of grappa in their drunken hands. Then they get into heavy vehicles and drive away on roads we plan to share. Simon takes a short siesta on a table under the pergola.

Val d’Orcia

From here a sweeping downhill takes us down into the dreamy Val d’Orcia of southern Tuscany and to Bagni San Filippo, a small characteristic village perched above ravine full of super-hot thermal springs. There is a steep path down to the Balena Bianca (White Whale), a waterfall of what looks like one hundred beluga whales jumping in a heap. Hot water runs down the white limescale formations into many human-sized basins which overflow into a river of chalky blue. A whiff of stinky Sulphur hangs in the air.

52 kilometres today. Rain is coming.

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Day 3 – Vetralla to Bolsena

Italian poppies

Day 3 – Flying along on the bike this morning. Legs pump away the back pain, but the saddle, oooh the saddle. I try to be stoic. My bum blisters have ballooned. One on each cheek. I haven’t seen them yet, but they feel like incorporated gel cushions.

At the coffee bar in Vetralla, a jolly well-dressed “Signore” orders a ‘whiskey corretto’. Normally people ask for a cafè coretto, which is a dash of alcohol in a shot of espresso. There are a myriad ways Italians prefer their dose of caffeine. We order cappuccino – hot – no sugar.

There are long queues of traffic waiting to get passed the road works. Trucks blast us with acrid black fumes as we weave our bikes between them. Gasping through his neck scarf, Simon shouts his slogan: “FOLLOW ME”. He is not afraid of traffic and holds the road. This is something seasoned cyclists know how to do – hold the road. It means to ride your bike in the middle of it, so that vehicles cannot overtake. Italian drivers are patient and road rage towards cyclists is quite rare. It goes against everything I’ve learnt about survival.

We stick to the pilgrim route as much as we can, preferring the white gravel farm roads.

Recent spring storms have washed gullies into the surface. My bike has rather narrow tires and I do my best not to get stuck in a rut. But ruts are inevitable on these roads, as in life itself. The thing is to not panic, be dexterous and hold on tight. Gravel roads are better than tar, not only are there fewer potholes, but I’m happier knowing that insects and animals have a better chance of crossing over to continue their livelihood activities on the opposite side.

We shout ‘Buon Camino’ to oncoming pilgrims tramping along under their hot backpacks. Poppies dot the verges and turn the fields red.

Signage, what there is of it, faces the opposite direction. We must rely on the cell phone and google maps. Simon is navigating, which leaves me free to learn how to operate my bike properly. I am beginning to like my trekking bike very much, particularly the boosting battery. It’s still cumbersome, and staying onboard while skidding on rolling pebbles is becoming my speciality.

With a lot of help from my booster I keep up with Simon as we cruise into the ancient city of Viterbo. Her grandiose architecture and rich history are as enticing as her boiling thermal baths. It is too warm to think of submerging ourselves in hot water, so we go directly to the bike shop for a spare tube in case of a puncture. Can’t believe I didn’t think of bringing one. Fixing a puncture features low on my skills list. The thought of a puncture gives me the shudders, especially if it happens in the countryside where large white maremmano-abruzzese sheepdogs find cyclists threatening. You don’t want to be hunching down with a tire when a dog shows up.

The town of Montefiascone is located high on the rim of a volcano with a fantastic view over the crater lake of Bolsena. Getting up this small back-road is so steep I worry about flipping over backwards! I am leaning forward, chest on the cross bar and zigzagging desperately trying to lesson the gradient. All I can say is ‘thank you’ to turbo battery power. Simon pushes his bike slowly up the near vertical slope.

There is absolutely no way I could do this ride without my e-bike assistant. We eventually reach the sweaty summit in time for a 3pm panino at Milioni il Caffè. Quaffing icy cold pineapple juice for the anti-inflammatory effects before flying downhill through the old oak forest into the crater. My speedometer records a top speed of 59,8 kph. My knees shake as I disembark in front of the convent in Bolsena.

The ancient town of Bolsena is on the shore of a huge round lake. Mother Superior makes us sit down in her reception room and tells us she is 90 years old, followed by a long story about the history of the Church in Bolsena. I’m not sure if her sense of smell still functions well, after a day of sweaty riding we must smell rather pungent. However, in perfect prose she explains the story of “Il miracolo” (the miracle).

“A priest from Bohemia, named Peter, passed by this place on his return from Rome to Prague in 1200, but he was having doubts about the bread and wine, what we call the Eucharist.

“Is it truly the body of Christ?” he wanted to know.

The following day as a visiting priest, he celebrated Mass in the Church. When he broke the Host (consecrated bread) blood fell from the bread onto his hands, on the cloth, and dripped down the altar to the marble floor below.

That expelled all doubt and Catholics have performed the Corpus Christie ever since”.

Our Mother Superior graciously showed us to our immaculate bedroom with a vaulted ceiling and windows overlooking the Church and piazza. We embalm our sunburned faces with scented moisturizer and sleep deeply, wrapped in crispy clean sheets. In the morning Mother stamps our credenziali before we fetch our bikes from the little shed at the end of a purple flowering pergola.

A statue of Madonna stands praying for us under an arch of blood red roses.

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Day 2 – Formello to Vetralla

Day 2 -Campagnano on Francigena pilgrimage

Doris from Bremen introduces herself to us outside the Chapel of the Madonna del Sorba. She is walking the pilgrimage with an Italian guide, north to south like you’re supposed to. We are going contro-signage, so taking the backward facing arrows when we see them. She kindly offered me accommodation when I reach Bremen. I’m not sure where Bremen is exactly.

The story of the Madonna del Sorba

One of the stories of this hilltop chapel, is this… a young swineherd noticed that one of his pigs went off alone every day for a couple of hours, so he decided to follow it and found it sitting on its haunches praying to an icon of the Madonna in the branches of a large Sorbus tree. An apparition of the Madonna appeared to the swineherd and told him to run and tell the villagers in Formello to build a chapel on this high spot.

“If the villagers don’t believe you” she said “I will do a miracle to convince them”.

 He ran to tell the villagers but, as expected, they did not believe him. So he put his mutilated hand into his pocket and pulled it out completely whole. (Early 1400’s). It was a convent for nuns after that.


The priest stamps our credenziali passports for us. Flowers rampage all over the garden, and the Madonna statue stands quietly praying under her rosy arch.

“She is praying for YOU” says the inner voice.

We ride on through a vortex of white butterfly wings, up and down the farm roads. The terrain is steeply forested.

Campagnano di Roma

A little boy of about six years old holds up his small serious hand to stop me in the village piazza of Campagnano. He looks up at me with his clear-brown Italian eyes and asks: “is this a brand new bicicletta?” I nod and he touches it reverently with his small fingers until his mom drags him away.

I feel a pang of nostalgia thinking of my own boy celebrating his thirtieth birthday today so far away in Australia. He also loves bicycles.

The old Borgo of Campagnano was not well signposted. It is perched on a high spur above the valley and we can’t find a way down the northern cliffs. A man sits on a barrel and watches us pouring over the map. A woman comes out of the house with a broom and points to a gap in the walls and a track that vanishes over a ledge.

The inner voice screams “impossible” but my miraculous disk-brakes let me down the cliff track, only to be challenged by sinking sand at the bottom. The sandy road changes to gravel then to cracked tarmac. It takes a lot of concentration to dodge the potholes.

I’m having difficulty with the saddle but remember Rumi who said – If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished? A short rest stop at the dreamy Cascata di Monte Gelato (cascades) is worthwhile. The we’re off again at full speed onto a busy road towards Monterosi.

Monterosi

A man on the side of the road sends us to Trattoria da Angelica in Monterosi for lunch. Delicious wormlike “bighetti” pasta on the menu at a table set with starched white cloth and pink serviettes. We’re comfortably sitting on a lovely veranda drinking a glass of cold wine with sweaty hair pressed into a helmet shape. That’s something special in Italy, they almost always set the table properly with wine glasses and clean tablecloths.

Vetralla

Long curly-haired, vibrantly charming Giacomo welcomes us with open arms to his pilgrim hostel in Vetralla. He is one of the top organisers of the Francigena pilgrimage.

He shows us up steep wooden steps to a little attic space squeezed under a simmering hot roof. The mattresses are bare but for a strip of tissue paper down the center. We have left our sleeping bags at home. But it’s clean and there is a big shower off the lobby downstairs. Showering after a day on the dusty road is both necessary and therapeutic.

Giacomo sends us to a pilgrim friendly restaurant nearby where we eat from a special pilgrim menu. Simple food but it tastes divine washed down with a cup of wine. 58 kilometers today not without pain.

The room is a furnace under the eaves. Simon lay down on the bare mattress and covered himself with the tissue paper and is already snoring loudly. Eventually I give up on sleep and climb down to the foyer area where I plop a couple of chair cushions on the cool floor. Gingerly lay down my aching body, arms crossed over my chest and meditate until morning.

see the route here

 

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Day 1 – Marino to Formello – via Rome.

Leanne Talbot Nowell - Formello

Rome the Eternal city – “Aaah bella Roma” once you are caught in her seductive “La Dolce Vita” embrace, you will become an overly emotional lover who can never leave. At approximately 2800 years old everything from the damp decay of frescoed tombs to her high-flying arches and golden orbs on moonlit domes, from baroque pink skies to the polished marble of palace floors, Roma is glorious. And a bit shabby.

We have done about 35 kms since Marino this morning, to reach Ponte Milvio bridge. The search is on for lunch. A veranda table at a restaurant VOY is available. Soon we are digging into a tasty bowl of paccheri pasta with a rich melanzane (aubergine) sauce topped with fresh mint and sun-dried tomatoes. The restaurateur runs off to the supermarket to fetch us some fruit juice after we declined his wine. Groggy cycling in Rome could prove fatal.

The hot Lazio sun burns our backs all afternoon as we ride out of Rome on zigzag roads into the northern countryside. It is quite challenging to find a bridge over/under the highway. A truck comes speeding around a sharp corner behind us and screeches to a bumpy halt inches from my rear reflector. I feel the heat of the engine surge over my shoulder in a smelly cloud of burning rubber.

I try to pedal standing up on account of the bum pain.

Via Francigena

A well timed SPRITZ dulls the pain in Formello. Simon has booked us in at a nice B&B.

Nonna Loretta shows us to our room and sells us two “pilgrim passports” for five euro each. They’re called “credenziale”, very much like the one you get for the Camino di Santiago. A folded card for pilgrims on their way from Canterbury to Rome. We are going in the opposite direction but we can still collect stamps from holy places along our inverted route. The passport also allows you special access to sleep in certain Convents and Monasteries. There are discounts on pilgrim meals at restaurants too. Make sure you get that when you do the camino di Francigena.

We eat salad at Osteria degli Angeli, the only guests in the dimly lit piazza in Formello. A drag queen unexpectedly appears from the great door of the municipal palace dressed in black lace and a massive wig. She looks down on us from the top of a flight of stairs and proclaims her existence with a gutsy howl “HAAAEEEOOW!!!” The sound echoes around the stone walls and into the dark streets. Frightening off the ghosts of Veii and us.

Back in our room at Nonna Loretta’s the soft bed absorbs the day’s agony like a sponge. Every part of my body is hurting except my feet.

Day 1. Sixty kilometers.

Click this to see the route we took today

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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.

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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?”

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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.