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Day 52 and 53 – Ängelholm – Halmstad – Varberg

Sweden west coast watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

To my beloved readers. Tomorrow Simon is taking me to Tuscany for a week. So this blog will be on hold until we get back. Apologies for the interruption but be sure there was no such interruption on the actual bike ride. Hope to see you back here soon. In the meantime, I will be painting plein-air in Tuscany. Not so bad! Wishing you all a safe and happy week..

Leanne

Day 52 – Going to Halmstad…

These days in Sweden the citizens are either fighting forest fires or playing on the beach. The drought and heat has followed me all the way up to the far north.

The cycle route is clearly marked – Kattegattleden 1, and highly recommended for any cycling holiday you might be considering for the future. Rust red signs point cyclists in the right direction. Sweden is much brighter than anticipated, I was expecting a sort of Viking-gone-Goth vibe, but the landscape has a comfortable beauty which scoops you along into dreamland.

Until rain splatters down on my luminous jacket, under which are two layers of warm garments. The locals happily continue gardening and carrying ladders, fixing picket fences and chopping wood in short sleeves.

In Båstad, my bike met the new red Tesla model S. Two eco-friendly vehicles parked together for a photograph. The bike is more beautiful. Ok – the model S has prettier handles…maybe.

3500 Kms at Skummestōvsstrand

Halmstad

Halmstad had a nice little centre on the mouth of the Nissan river, where I searched for the most healthy of all the burger menus. There are only burger menus. Made for the thousands of university students who study here. How I wish for one of those Rhine river salads!  The waitress kindly suggests I do away with the bun, and take extra salad instead. When the little brown patty arrives it had two stalks of garnish instead of one.

Pity a poor cyclist who didn’t get to eat the lobster and oysters this coast is famous for.

My big single room at the hostel has one bed and two desks. There were a lot of bikes standing in the yard, but no bike lock-up, so I rolled mine through the foyer, into the lift, up to the second floor, along a passage, through two spring-loaded doors, passed the kitchen, and into the bedroom. No funny looks.

See the route map here


Day 53

The Swedes are having a wonderful summer, mostly half-naked at their summer huts, fixing things and potting around getting everything in Hygge order. Their cottages have mostly been in the family for generations. If you want one you might be lucky to find one, and it’ll cost you a million. The sky breaks into a smile. Children laughing and birds singing type of atmosphere. Magical. Voluptuous pink granite boulders shoulder the west coast, forming about eight thousand islands. Low green bushes line yellow fields and red cottages dot the curvy bays.

There are only three different types of cars in Sweden, all of them Volvo – black, grey and white. Beware of black car drivers, they whip passed at a hair’s width, grey car drivers give you a respectful 2 meters, and white car drivers go over into the oncoming lane, dangerously close to having head-on collisions. That’s just the observation of the day from the saddle of my bike.

Varberg

Whizzed over to the only room available in Varberg. The bed&makeyourownbreakfast man enthusiastically but vaguely points me to the beach, which is actually in another direction entirely. I should have checked the map. 

Embarrassed to expose myself in a swimsuit, a chilly wind nips about my two-tone legs, but nevertheless I picked up the courage to wade into the sea, and wade, and wade. How far out do you need to go before one can actually swim? If Simon was here he would drag me in. Instead I creep into a little wind shelter nest behind a log and snuggle down to relax in the late night sun.

Lodging in this area is fully booked for summer, so you would be forgiven for thinking there must surely be a local restaurant. Apparently not. And you must forgive the other B&B guests for using up all the hot water. When one is sea-salt-sticky and weary after pedalling 124 kms, a cold shower and no supper on a chilly evening is not a lifter-upper. Good thing I paid that extra 100 Krona for breakfast.


There was no soothing whiff of coffee in the morning, just silence. I wait, fully packed and ready, and nothing happens. Grimly reach for the fridge, chop some tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and pile them up on a slice of bread. Make coffee, eat sandwich. Made an extra big sandwich for a possible further famine and wash up. Leave without further adooo.

Will need to make some value versus cost adjustments now in prep for Scandinavia.

See the approximate route map here

See you soon…keep well and safe.

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Day 39 & 40 – Duisburg to Datteln to Drensteinfurt

powerhouse

Now in the North Rhine-Westphalia area of Germany, and trying to follow the Industrial heritage route for cyclists. My phone died just twenty minutes after setting out, so I’m on a higgledy-piggledy quest to find the way towards who-knows-where. Real cyclists would have the full kit of maps and apps. They would have done some reading and planning. Instead I fiddle with photos, painting and writing, then collapse into bed by nine.

The 2500 km mark popped up directly in front of a raspberry farm stall. It was a happy moment after a tough, hot and smelly day of riding through industrial parks and road works. I was negotiating yet another “umleitung” which took me off the canal cycle track and through a farm. Britta Jakobi offered me some of her fresh raspberries to taste. Heaven!

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The air there is not good. If you look on the map for Marxloh, Oberhausen, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund…you’ll see a lot of tall factory towers. It took me three hours to ride through. My eyes burned terribly from the chemicals. However the community have built these amazing cycle routes in the area.  Römer-Lippe river
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Coffee stop, recharged phone, but it lasted another twenty minutes and so wandered lonely as a cloud until I found a yacht club where I ordered lunch while it charged again. The waitress pointed me in the direction of Henrichenburg, but I decided to follow the signs in the opposite direction instead. To Henrichenburg.

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Very interesting place, Henrichenburg, where the ships are taken in and out of the water.

Found a nice place to sleep at Datteln.

Odometer: 2516

78 kms

See the map route here.

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Day 40 – Datteln to Drensteinfurt

Grey sky day. I have a super invitation from friends of ours Hans-Georg and Birgitta to overnight with them. They sent me a digital map but I soon took the wrong turn. Thinking it was simply a matter of following the canal I went on for most of the morning but found it was the wrong canal. No wonder there were no people.

A lock,  front and back.
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A long way later, in Lüdinghausen, found out I  was supposed to be Lünen, so had to change plans… but first a visit to a medieval expo at the castle. Fascinating walk and conversations in the park there filled with characters from the past. Well worth the mistake.

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This is the path I frantically took to reach Ascheberg. “Googly girl” told me go through the farms which involved some bushwacking.
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Birgitta kindly came by bike to fetch me in Ascheberg, and we rode together to their hometown Drensteinfurt. I was given a lovely welcome, great food and enjoyed the afternoon and evening in their comfortable company.

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Bike ride_0161.jpgFamous Hans-Georg giant waffles with strawberries and cream.

See the map route here.

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Day 34 – 36 – Loreley

Rheinstein Castle on the Rhine river, watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Simon left Rome very early in the morning and landed at Frankfurt-Hahn airport, hired a car and drove to meet me at Oberwesel. Happily freewheeled down the hill to find him waiting in the car park.  We wandered through the quaint town and milky coffee and a large slice of romantic cake at the Konditorei-caffè Bonsch.

For the sake of love I let him ride my bike sans-panniers for 17 kms to Boppard while I drove the cumbersome car.  There he surprised me with a booking at the extraordinary Bellevue Rheinhotel. A luxurious room with a river view! Lovely place for some pampering.

No cycling this weekend but as Simon is known to be a no-limits man, we managed to visit five different castles on one day. Including the infamous Loreley rock. “Die Loreley” is a poem written by Heinrich Heine in 1824  which describes a lovely siren sitting on the slate cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair. She unwittingly distracted shipmen with her beauty and song causing them to crash on the rocks.

The tour was not without a good number of wine tasting sessions. This is Riesling territory after all.

One cannot escape sampling the German beer as well,  and eating enormous helpings of tasty food under the hanging baskets of geraniums and rose covered pergolas. It was all supremely majestical.

We also took a small boat over to an island to see the customs house. Once the passing ships had to stop to pay taxes here. History on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfalzgrafenstein_Castle

Here are loads of photographs which tell the story.

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The horseshoe which belonged to the devil, was embedded in the road when the people rolled a barrel down upon him as he tried to enter the town….

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Day  36 – Boppard to Bad Honnin

Simon had to leave very early on Monday morning to get back to the office in time.

He was not there to see me heading off north down river, hopping from coast to coast by ferry, whenever things looked more interesting on the opposite bank. The track is perfect up until Koblenz where it gets a bit lost in the industrial zone. An older couple stopped me to complain, they thought it was an idyllic riverside tour all the way. It soon became idyllic once again.
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Having got lost and eventually crossed over the train bridge at Ermitz, the path fizzled out, and I found myself struggling along in the grass. But after some panicky moments in a dark wood, up popped a lovely girl with a dog, and said I should persist. Soon a town popped up and I felt much more on the right track. There are many lovely little villages along the way,  but now they are much flatter and more spread out.
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Linz am Rhein.

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Found the super Bacchus garten at Leyscher Hotel in Leutesdorf under giant walnut trees on the river bank for lunch.

The track was closed, so I shot onto the ferry just in time. On the opposite bank was another ferry just ready to go, so hopped onto that one, so zigzagged a bit to avoid the construction works.

Later that afternoon I was happy to accept a very generous invitation to stay with our friends Rolf and Bianca in Bad Honnef. They treated me to a sumptuous BBQ with good Italian wine and a lovely guest room. Fabulous friends.

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88 kms.

See the route map here

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Day 31 – Ludwigshafen am Rhein to Nackenheim

Viticulture

Today the wind came up against me. The tall poplar trees along the river bank clapped their leaves. Sounds like a standing ovation – tree applause. Birds of prey skim from the blue sky over the bristling wheat fields searching for mice.

A river of this magnitude begins with a twinkle on a mountain peak then joins with others until it becomes a powerful moving force, such magic. Thinking about the dams, locks, dykes, canals, chemicals, barges, all strangling the loveliness. I ride on the incredible eurovelo 15 cycle path and appreciate it very much of course.

Getting out of the city of Ludwigshafen is a snakes and ladders game.  On the outskirts of town in the industrial area under a bridge there is a kiosk that makes a hot brown beverage. The three old men who shared the stuff with me won’t believe I come from Rome.

I’ve noticed a strange phenomena too regular to be sheer coincidence. Maybe I’m getting a bit googledy-gook, but if I need something it just comes, like riding through a pop-up story book. Each page swings up at me, whether it be a kiosk, or a sign post, a cycle track, or a place to stay.

I dare not let anxiety pop-up, in case it manifests. But it is very reassuring to know that all you need is proper attention and consideration at every intersection, then the journey goes on.

Worms had no redeeming features. I ask a girl near the station: ” Juligung Juligung, where is the centrum, the altstadt…innerstadt??”. She replies “You are in it, this is Worms”.
At the bakery-cafe, three large flies rest on the cheesecake. The cakes look huge and delicious. I ride around town looking for somewhere I can sit down to eat my slice.

Later at lunch, sitting at a table under a big green umbrella eating salad on the banks of the mighty Rhine, a large spider lands on me and I do a sudden little jig and beat my chest like Tarzan. I hope I didn’t damage it.

Extremely long barges come sailing upstream loaded high with containers or piles of sand. Surprisingly they don’t make much of a wave.

Pedal and pedal all day, usually along the dykes. There are a handful of other cyclists, and some of them are loaded with panniers for longer trips. I follow a man who looks like he knows where he is going. He has a one-wheeled trailer attached to the back of his bike loaded with his camping gear. At a wider section of cycle track, I ride alongside him and say ‘Guten Tag”. He immediately tells me he had just completed 2000 kms, but when I say ‘me too’, he gives me a contemptuous look. I should have just said ‘BRAVO’ then he may have chatted longer. Every bit of solo cyclist conversation out here on the lonesome dykes is precious.

Back in wine country this evening, there are hills here, and a microclimate ideal for viticulture.

Fortunate to find a room at the Landhotel in Nackenheim. Feeling quite knackered myself. I telephone ahead this time but the owner tells me he is fully booked…but wait, yes, there is a single room. A good price at 50 Euros including breakfast. The chef is sick so the hotelier sends me to the Sports Bar for a large schnitzel and beer. The clientele are all dressed in German red, black and yellow. War painted faces sucking on cigarettes. I am the only happy person here. Apparently Germany has just been kicked out of the world cup soccer tournament. What misery.

Bitte schön – danke schön…Tchuss (sounds like cheers).

77 kms

See the route map here

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Day 27 – Freiburg to Erstein – Cycling

day 27 Rome to Oslo, watercolour Leanne Talbot Nowell

A bicycle has two sides to it. Not only is cycling a mood altering activity but is virtually harmless to our Earth. It also cures diseases of the body, mind and soul. Better than yoga, better than pills, even better than a glass of wine.

You can pedal elegantly along at thinking speed or beat at the pedals with your foot fists. Either way you leave negative thoughts behind. Go ahead and smile, sob, struggle, sing or scream on a bike, it’s an emotion-balancing instrument. By the time you reach your destination everything will be fine.

You can propel yourself along at a manageable speed, neither too fast nor too slow. Freewheeling down and grinding up the hills. A bike easily becomes an extension of the body and mind. You can slow down to see the black sheen of a raven’s back as it flaps across your path, or speed up to overtake a sewage processing plant. Thereby maximising the amount of beauty you see going by, and minimising the ugly bits.

Freiburg to the river Rhine

This morning there was no dilly-dallying except for a quick stop at a stationary shop where I bought a gift for my bike. Picked out some flower stickers to brighten her up. Half-ran, half-walked with excited expectation to the station to retrieve her and bring her back to the hotel to load up the panniers. Cities are nice for a bit, then all that complicated noise and bad air gets too much.

It has taken me all day to muddle my dizzy way along lonely paths between farmlands and forests to reach the river. The knees joints are the most stressed part of the engine. By kicking my legs out sideways the kneecaps tend to jump back into place. The vertigo seems to be vanishing I’m trying to keep level-headed.

Asparagus

It appears to be asparagus season. Here in Germany the loamy soil is neatly combed in long rows called ‘hillings’. Wispy green plants fringe the lines. Farmers pile the soil over the asparagus rootstock, keeping the new asparagus shoots covered. The darkness prevents them from developing chlorophyll. The season lasts only a few weeks. Harvesting this ‘white gold’ involves much painstaking labour. The soil is carefully brushed away and the ghostly shoots are cut by hand. People buy bags full, fresh from the farmer. Then rush home to cook and peel – or peel and cook (I don’t know) before guzzling them with buttery sauce. In France they prefer them green.

Another white thing to experience on the German side of the river is the salad dressing. They make luscious lettuce salads smothered in a mysterious white sauce. I had to look up the recipe. Ingredients are a blended cream, lemon juice and sugar. French dressing is made from finely chopped shallots, red or white wine vinegar, fine sea salt, Dijon mustard, extra-virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper all whisked together in piquant harmony.

At Rust I came upon the Europa Park, a huge amusement park which seems to be closed. After two laps around the fantastical town looking for lunch I finally found a seed bun to eat at a bakery. There a middle-aged ‘Kauz’ spent a while trying to catch my eye and eventually told me he was 70 years old and he rides his bike 50 kms every day and also swims. I thanked him for talking to me.

Like a painting, the subject needs a focal point.

There is a surprise at the end of the road! A little ferry motoring across the water between Germany and France. It’s not my intention to cross at this point, but ‘what the heck’ why not visit France again. That’s the nice thing about this part of the Rhine valley, you can easily flip back and forth between cultures.

On French soil at Rhinau there was a strategically placed tourist information office. It was mid-afternoon and time to look for a place to stay. Like a bee to a flower, I went in for some nectar but the lady behind the desk said “no accommodation”. I looked at her pleadingly with brimming eyes. So she huffed and began flipping through a brochure. To my surprise she called up all the hotels in the book. Not giving up until she had a positive answer. Certainly the spirits had something to do with it because that room was the only one available within cycling range, even though it was far and beyond the track. It would have been a cruel night if I hadn’t been guided into that office. The lady marked the place on a printed map, and off I buzzed to reach the place before dark.

Beware of information desk staff who make random pen marks from across the desk. It leads to much inconvenience and many unnecessary kilometers. Luckily she had written down the name of the hotel.

Eventually I found the place on google maps app, which found me – a blue dot on the screen – and the Googley-girl voice told me where to go. Google maps have a flip side. Technically convenient yes, but one misses the wholesome challenge of deciphering locations on a paper map while it crinkles and flutters in the wind. Today is quite windy, head on of course.

Dinner is delicious at the Hotel des Bords de L’ill in the small town called Erstein. Their chef uses a flourish of aromatic herbs and honey. There is a full complement of Dijon mustards on the table……I am in France!

No wifi in the hotel. Feeling doubly lonesome. The only company I have this evening is that annoying inner voice demanding to know why I’m doing this to myself. I’m lying in a single bed looking out of the square hotel window at the waxing moon. It will be full in a few days. Maybe then I’ll know what I’m searching for.

With no wifi or phone signal I don’t even know where I am exactly, let alone where to go next.

78 kms today. The map is not perfectly accurate due being lost most of the time.

See the map route here

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BUZINESS

Lavender watercolour by Leanne

HELLO everybody,


I have been happily illustrating and writing about the cycle ride for 25 days now. Only a quarter of the way in distance – which gives you an idea of how long the long distance ride was. After some thought I’ve decided the story can be divided into three parts to prevent OVERWHELM. lol.


Part ONE being the ‘Italy and over the Alps’ section, The Rhine river and crossing through Germany to the North Sea will be the second section, and then Scandinavia the third.


So I thought this a good moment to take a little break from the writing. My house is rather neglected and Simon has invited me to go for a bike tour with him next weekend in the Rome region. That means a small interruption in the long distance story, although in reality it was never interrupted.


Thanks for all your dedicated reading, and all the wonderful comments and encouragement. All most appreciated and motivational in getting this story written down.


I will be back on the 3rd June for PART TWO. That’s our official end of quarantine in Italy. An auspicious day to continue with the bike tour. Until then I will be painting and preparing the illustrations. Putting the “Lockdown” blogs into a book, and getting my summer clothes out.


Looking forward to seeing your escapades on facebook and Instagram in the meantime.

Much love


Leanne

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Day 25 and 26 – Karsau, Basel, Freiburg – 114 kms

Frieberg, watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

No sign of the famous Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte so far. Maybe the world-famous Black Forest Gateau will make an appearance at my next destination, which would be Freiburg, although I doubt I would make it that far in today. The world famous black forest is looming on my right (north). That’s where they make the Kirschwasser or ‘cherry water’ with a volume of 40% to put in their delectable cake. Apparently the Swiss also add it to fondues.

The journey is not without highs and lows, although the terrain is flat. The river runs into water works! A blockage, necessary to prevent flooding. Everything is under control here except the weather. Sunny and hot.

After a good breakfast, I rejoin the river at the Aluminium works. There are more clean looking manufacturing parks around here. Very important to the economy and to improving our comfort zones. The big mish-mash of pipes and chimneys and blank buildings hum with chemical smells.

Basel

Back to pedalling along the edge of the shining river, along the weed free cycle track, and thinking about all the people I love.

Swerved up to the big city of Basel to see a bit of Switzerland again before diving into the depths of Germany. Basel is immaculate and beautiful, definitely worth a visit. They take great care of their parks, fountains and signage. There are explicit rules for cyclists though, and beware if you don’t follow them. I cruise through town gaping at the amazing architecture.

The lipstick-red signs tell me where to go at every street corner. In a roundabout traffic circle, a sign points to Freiburg 77 kms. Golly, that’s a long way. I follow the arrow but find myself circling a few times in search of further pointers. I stop to ask a policeman which road to take. He replies “I don’t know anything about the way to Freiburg”.

So veer off on a random road which takes me to Huningue. It sounds good enough but I’m horribly lost. The map on the phone screen just cannot figure out where to go next. So I ride on over the border into France and through many vacant chic French villages, and then Niffer and Blodelsheim and Fessenheim. None of which had people in them.

At a greenly painted hotel I come across the first rude woman of my trip. She rolls her eyes dramatically when I ask if she could be so kind as to charge my battery a little bit. I offer to pay. She climbs up a ladder and plugs it into a hanging cord with an impatient gesture.
There were some very long and lonely stretches here, and I have to admit to performing my first bush-pee. Being open and flat country anyone could see me squatting amongst the sugar beet blushing in my luminescent pink top.

Lunch consisted of stolen goods from B&B Jasmin. My bike served as a picnic table. Nutella, hard boiled egg, apple, and a slice of horse food (sour bread). Washed down with the last gulp of water. There are no water fountains or places to buy water along the this route.

On the way to Freiburg

The photography of the day is dismal due to my speedy urgency to reach Freiburg before dark. My brother said I should definitely go there, it’s his favourite town in Germany. It’s way off my track but I obey my brother as usual.

The final hours on the bike included a few incidents: a side-on collision with a boy on a push scooter … golly that was a close call! He shot off the pavement without looking. Then I hit a large hole which clattered my teeth and sent my phone flying out of the little handlebar pouch. I only noticed it was gone about 2 kms down the road so raced back and found it lying in the middle of the path. Thank heavens! It would be a disaster to lose that. And, I had a wasp up my sleeve which stung me repeatedly while I was on the phone booking my accommodation.

The stings hurt but were nothing compared to the fatigue pain.

Negotiating the chaotic bike traffic in the university city of Freiberg at 18:00. No rules apply. There must surely be a million bikes here!

I forgot to enquire about a lock up area for my beloved bicycle. Gasthaus Löwen does not have a place so after removing everything possible from the bike, including my whale bell, flower, carriers, lights etc, I reluctantly push her in amongst all the other bikes parked on the street and lock her up nicely for the night.

New record distance: 114 kms.

The person in charge of the rooms is not around with the key, so I sit down for dinner with flat hair and smelly clothes. A gentleman who has retired to Lago Maggiore bravely sits next to me. He knows all the Alpine cycle tracks. He tells me that my bike will definitely be stolen, whether chained or not. Thieves will cut the chain in seconds.

According to the restaurant staff, there is a secure bike parking at the train station. So I wearily take my bike downtown to the modern train station in the dark. Rows of bikes are parked under the bridge. To leave it there is more dangerous than being locked outside the hotel! So I ask the eyelashy girl at the info desk in the station building. She says “no, there is no parking for bicycles”. 

There is a large spiral bike parking tower 50 m down the road. A pretty young lady, who is also locking up her bike, helps me figure out the in’s and out’s of the ticketing system. All written in accurate German. One must stand on a sticker spot and then the gates open and close. It’s weird to see bikey stripped bare and caged like a boney zoo animal.

My clothes need washing, so I have decided stay here tomorrow and pick up a bit of culture at the same time.

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Leanne’s bicycle legs in the mirror haha!

DAY 25

Hardly slept last night in the overheated attic room. A large extractor chimney, originating from the kitchen by the smell of it, blasted hot oily air directly into my window. There was no way I could spend another minute in that place, so went out into the morning, staggering under two panniers, battery, handlebar bag, carrier bag, handbag…down the street to somewhere else.

A more expensive place run by university students. They couldn’t allow me to put my bags in the room before 15:00 and they had no place to store them, so I sat in the dining room all day. A shabby looking person like me is the type you move to another table when guests arrive. I was asked to move five times. It was necessary to occupy the kitchen door in order to get my lunch order in.

When the room was finally ready, I dumped my luggage and went out to find a laundromat. A very-very thin man dressed entirely in black helped with the money.

As my friend Jane says “no matter how fast you ride laundry always catches up with you!”

see the route map here

click on the photographs to enlarge them. Unfortunately my editing program is not working, so these are a bit dark.

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Day 24 – Waldshut Tiengen to Karsau – bedbugz.

scenery along the way

The only men I attract by my appearance these days, are those with noisy machines. Mowers, tractors, builders and lorry drivers. Even the rubbish truck man made a comment after a near hit. I don’t think it was complimentary.
But the hoteliers usually always shake my hand when I leave, which is comforting.

My ebike has a little onboard computer which gives me four cycling modes, depending how much help I need for the terrain. I have added a pretend mode: “LOST” which is a boost for dizzy-blonde morale.

There are bedbugs in my industrial park motel room. EEEK!

Luckily I slept in my special silk sleeping sack to protect me from an annoying fly. Thereby unwittingly preventing those dreaded bed-bug bites. You must always travel with one of these silk cocoon bags. Bed bugs can’t get through the tightly woven silk. I saw them this morning clustered around my panniers which are standing on the floor. Now all my clothes need washing. Good thing, as they haven’t seen a washing machine for 4 weeks.  Hand washing my clothes every evening is obviously not quite enough judging by my attracting annoying flies.

Whistling along through yet another vacant village I see a public swimming pool. It is the hottest day so far and there is a blackboard outside with a fast food menu scribbled on it. The combination of pool and food is too much to resist. While guzzling a bratwurst smothered in mayo and ketchup, I watch a nice round Italian Mama dragging her crying little boy out of the water. He wants to play with the German kids….but she bellows “DEVI MANGIARE AMORE!!!”… . (you must eat my love). The water is icy cold and I wallow like a crocodile for a while.

Cooling towers, steel works, and other industry are beginning to pop up around every corner along the Rhine. Cement factories are my worst. Not only ugly and toxic, but the thought of covering the Earth with the deadly stuff is horrible.

A fantastic old covered wooden bridge – Holzbrücke Bad Säckingen – crosses the water between Germany and Switzerland. Switzerland is much more expensive so I ride across and back to the German side again. The Swiss like to shop in Germany because it’s cheaper and they can get the tax refunded.

At about 15:00 it’s time to search for accommodation. I haven’t seen any obvious places to stay along the route today. Even toilets are difficult to find. One cannot just piddle on the side of the road like the men do. Neither is this Italy where you can find a crowded cafe at the centre of even the smallest village. You can use the lavatory for the price of a cool drink and get help with finding accommodation.

Going strong and dizzily along this beautiful landscape. There are long stretches of shady bike tracks here but half the time you’re riding on the streets. Junctions can be a bit complicated, and routes take you along farm roads through cultivated fields. One of the hazards of riding in fields are the irrigation sprays. You must wait for the squirting and then speed passed while they turn the other way. I think a light sprinkling will be nice in this weather so I go pedalling through. Just so you know, it’s like a waterfall and rather blinding. I almost veered off into the maize.

Checked my booking.com for a place to stay, and found Pension B&B Jasmin, off track at Karsau. On the way up there I spot an a ebike shop. Feeling very happy to stop and ask the huge man for some chain grease. He shows me how to apply it. Now my gears don’t change very well, and the chain clatters terribly.

There is nobody at B&B Jasmin, so I plonk myself down at a Pub close by. Testing my German a little bit. A very traditional place that smells of cigarettes and sour beer. I randomly order dinner – Rinderleber with balsamico – for the Italian touch. The waiter brings it to the table and says it’s cow heart. After a few moments of revolted consideration, my reasonable voice says “oh well, maybe it’s good for courage, love and emotion”. Strangely it tastes exactly like liver and onions. Washed down with a freezing glass of white wine.

I am way too tired and my hair is a fright.

Odometer 1573.7

63 kms today.

See the route map here

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Day 21-Stuben to Rorschach-going down

Friesian horse in the forest

Dropping down from the arms of the lovely mountain today, with the Alfenz stream happily cascading at my side. From Stuben to Bludenz to Nenzing to Feldkirch. Dropping as a spider does, black wheels spinning below the Scots Pines. White water widens into a deep teal river and you can see the trout. As the altitude changes so does your attitude, going from high to low at the thought of the complicated web of agriculture and urban crust to negotiate from now on.

Soon there is a tunnel but the panic isn’t so bad this time, a bright spot at the other end is visible, and there is a shoulder to ride on. But I much prefer riding on the gravel forest roads in the mountains.

My tires crunch passed a forest clearing where an Oompah band blows a tune to a crowd in a carnival tent. Everyone is wearing traditional dirndl and lederhosen. To add to my delight around the next corner a beautiful black Friesian stallion bolts out of the bush, his shaggy mane waving over his face. I take a moving shot from the hip. One of my best photographs so far. His rider reins him in with a smile. The heavy camera hangs by a strap around my neck, bouncing off my thigh at every pedal of the way.

I’m officially over the hill.

There will be no more mountains until I reach Oslo. The flat air is strangely full of cooking smells on this side of the Alps. Windows are squarer and the cars are mostly black. Everyone is smart and sober except at the biergarten.

The joyous Alfenz runs dying into the dykes of the Ill which merges with the Rhine River or…Rhenus, Rein, Rhein, le Rhin, Reno, Rijn….This famous river is going to be my travelling companion for the next chapter of the journey. One thousand kilometres or so. But first there is the beautiful lake Constance to circumnavigate.

Feeling highly oxygenated after crossing the Alps. Approximately 450 kilometers on my odometer. I used to think the range was a stretch of two mountains wide with Austria snug in the valley between them. But if you ever fly over in a plane you can see how the snow covered peaks go on and on. The whole range makes an arc of about 800 km long (east to west), and about 200 kms wide as the crow flies.

103 kms later in Rorschach (Switzerland) I flop onto a bunk bed in a modern youth hostel Herberge See, happy to have all the bunks to myself. The room offers a fabulous northern view and one funny looking plug. Swiss plugs and money are unique. None of my electronics can be charged. The receptionist has locked up and gone away, so no chance of borrowing an adapter.

I must go out in search of food which is a lot of trouble for my legs. The closest food places are already closing up so I walk into town. Some nice ladies feed me green asparagus with yellow hollandaise sauce, and a little beer while they close the restaurant. Stacking up chairs around me as I eat. The World Cup soccer tournament – Switzerland versus Brazil game is on. Enthusiastic boys shout from speeding cars covered in Swiss flags. As I leave the restaurant the rain comes gushing down. My plastic sandals are slippery on the inside, so I walk the two kilometers back to the lonely hostel barefoot and bedraggled.

It was a lovely day but I’m buggered and tomorrow is going to be fun with no battery.

See the route map here.

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Day 20 -Landeck to Stuben – the Arlberg pass

Alpine lupins, watercolour by Leanne

The thought of cycling over any Alpine pass makes me nervous, especially this one, so I delay it and dabble with my paint-box instead. Sitting flat on the road in the still sunshine and painting the river bank full of chaotic lupins, dandelions, daisies and the bright water. I’m trying to have poetic thoughts but all I can think of is the upcoming monster.

According to the hotel manager, I must most definitely go by train through the tunnel, but Simon says “Go over the top, you’ll be sorry if you don’t”. It’s true, my goal is to ride all the way to Oslo. Some people suspect me of cheating which is understandable, they probably would in my position, but I really don’t like cheats so why be one.

Almost immediately the road turns up through an avalanche gallery crowded with zooming cars and buses. The booming echo sets off my tunnel panic. I look up and see a bus full of people staring down at me. A big sorry sob comes bubbling up, and I need to make an imaginary emergency call to my backup team.

The answer is immediate “Mom. Just pedal!”

No sympathy at all!

Well, I go through 550 meters and come out the other side where the views are astonishing. Scree slopes at oblique angles, all dotted with Norwegian Spruce. Pointy peaks streaked with white ice. A luminous sky leaning toward the colour of purple lupins.

I plug in my earbuds and play some music to get me up the hill. Not something I do very often because my phone runs out of battery too soon. Today I plan to stop overnight in St. Christoph which is just up the hill. So for once the battery power isn’t my main concern.

Oliver Sacks said “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more — it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Avoided a second tunnel by going over it on a service road. Stopped for lunch at an Alm in St. Christoph am Arlberg, where I’m sitting under a bright orange umbrella at a dizzy altitude, eating delicious Tiroler Gröstl. A copper pan filled with roasted potatoes, fried eggs, bacon and onions. A bowl of krauti salad on the side, and an Almdudler to drink. Most satisfactory. Seems as if my appetite is coming back. Good thing because my arms were beginning to look like two brown chopsticks.

I ride around to find a room at one of the hotels. They are all closed for the summer. So I’m forced to ride on. The battery is almost empty…and the thought of another vertical climb puts me in a spin. But the road wiggles along some curves and then gratefully falls, zigzagging steeply. Harley Davidson motor-bikers come up against me, blasting with noise and shining colours.

I stop at a panoramic viewpoint to check the app and book a room at the next village – Stuben. The Après Post Hotel is the only accommodation available and at a reasonable rate. After almost falling down the cliff, I arrive at the hotel and think “oh golly” this is going to be expensive. Way too posh for my budget. These new polaroid glasses of mine probably blurred a zero when I was making the booking.

However, my happiness level soars when the receptionist confirms the price. Golly, how lucky! To top it all, the pretty waitresses dressed in traditional dirndl costumes, help me carry my panniers to the room.

Use of the spa is included in the price, so after a good shower I find myself wallowing in a large whirlpool made of stainless steel. At first the dark shimmering shadows play games with your imagination (jaws) but if you calm down it turns into a fabulous undulating rainbow-flecked reflection of the steely peaks above. There is also a basket swing chair pod to snuggle into, making it really easy to fall asleep and almost miss dinner.

Only 40 kilometres today. Over the Arlberg pass which is 1793 mt high at St. Christoph.

Lessons – avoid shortcuts….. and expect the unexpected.

At the dinner table now thinking about all those people on the tour bus, and how they missed the transparent stream hidden by the barrier rail, missed the cow that talked and the two running weasels. They didn’t catch the scent of that marvellous flowering tree in the fresh air… and they missed having a sob in the tunnel.

see the route map here.

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Day 19-Burgusio to Landeck-Austria

Resia pass

The room has no frills. A small writing table and chair. Eleven electric plugs in the space of three square meters to charge up all my appliances. Other than the battery, there is the phone, the camera, the laptop, two extra lights, and a little recharger for the phone.

Up the slope from Burgusio is the magnificent Marienburg Monastery. Incredible to see, the highest (altitude) Benedictine monastery in Europe. The library there has recently been rebuilt for the valuable book collection. Architecture and technology have come together here in a brilliant way, well worth a visit.

After a good German-style breakfast I set off … warily checking for the man.

The sky is royal blue but there is a strong head wind blasting over from Austria.

Lago del Muta Haidersee passes to my right. Then I cross over the wall of the next lake Reschensee. The water is all blustery with rows of white waves. The famous old church tower stands in the water. When the authorities built the hydroelectric dam, they were compelled to drown a large area including a couple of villages. They dismantled the church but left the tower which stands a forlorn memory to the past.

My smoothly tarred cycle track winds up to the high point of the Reschen/Resia pass at 1500 meters and then down into Austria. I’m quite sad to leave Italy. There are European Union flags proudly declaring peace and co-operation on either side of the hill. But also a Republik Österreich flag painted in red and white. A group of motorcyclists are taking selfies. The lovely track swoops down through curved meadows of flowers. Small groups of houses and farmsteads huddle fresh and white with darkly weathered wooden gables and steep slate roofs. Bright flowers hang in baskets below patterned window frames. Their facades a-swirl with painted scenes and figures. Roses spill over picket fences.

The exhilaration of swiftly going down the other side of a pass is incredible. You grow wings.

Then things get crazy. My kids would absolutely love going down a switchback road like this, dropping meters per second into a crack in the Earth excavated by the Inns river. Wild noise!!

At the bottom of the ravine, sheer cliffs on either side rise up so high you can’t see the tops. I cross over the bridge to the Swiss side of the river. My second international border of the day. A sign points left to “St. Moritz” but I follow the water. These fancy new polaroid glasses tend to enlarge things and make them more vivid, adding an astronautical dimension to the scene. Quite an overwhelming feeling of becoming a jellybean, a tiny bag of complexity wrapped in a very fine membrane balancing on a precarious instrument called a bicycle.

The river is a heavy raging torrent of deep white water that crashes off the staggering cliffs, thundering at immense boulders and ledges in a wash of foam. The sound magnitude of vibrating rocks and water is beyond hearing, you can feel the rumble in your chest. My claws cling to the handlebars as clouds of turbulent vapour blast me along.

Such real awesomeness that breaks open your brain to stuff it with the universe, and your heart forgets to beat in the face of raw power. The road draws on down the valley and the world begins to calm down.

People who make a living in these brutal mountains must be admired. As for the cows, they all have brass bells around their necks and graze on vertical banks of flowers. No wonder the milk is so sweet and fragrant.

There are quite a few other cyclists on the pass, mostly couples, some on e-bikes. Fleets of racers too, both men and women. I haven’t seen any solo female bikers since leaving Marino.

Landeck

Next stop, Landeck, where the Inns river merges with other catchment streams then snakes its way to Innsbruck. Simon had suggested I might stop at Landeck for lunch. But I cycle into town at 17:00 – with 85 kms on the screen, flat out exhausted. The wind pushed against me all day. What a beautiful ride, but the seat has left me wounded.

Found a hotel, Bruggner Stub’n, with a nice big room. Dinner and breakfast included. The manager is chatty and knowledgeable. He says I absolutely must take the train through the tunnel tomorrow. He worked on the QE2. I presume as a chef by the way he so lovingly talks about food. He gives me the choices on tonight’s dinner menu, and it takes less than a second to answer yes to most of it. So hungry, I go down to the dining-room as soon as the doors open at 18:00. I am the only guest, and my table is set for one. A blonde waitress brings soup, “Tafelspitz” she explains “beef broth with apple sauce, horseradish and chives”. It is delicious. but I manage just a few spoons and my appetite disappears. So strange.

Logistics status. haha.

Now that my first one thousand kms are done, I feel more qualified to tell you more about the body management.

At 7:00 I toss myself out of bed and put on my sometimes damp outfit which I always wash the night before. If I’m lucky there will be an egg at breakfast. Then quickly pack up all the paraphernalia, battery charges, laptop, diary etc. Everything goes into specific ziplock bags which makes less mess when you need to dig down in the pannier for something. The body is adapting to a clockwork toilet routine, for the first time in my entire life. That business is done at 7:30 just before setting off. For those who wanted to know what one does about a loo when you’re out there all day in the countryside. That worry seems to have taken care of itself. Squatting down in the bush hasn’t been necessary yet.

I have a stash of energy bars in the bag, and my water bottle is filled when I stop for lunch.

Most days at around mid-afternoon I stop to check my phone for a room on booking.com. I try to get the cheapest one with the best reviews and a lockup for my bike. Unfortunately, rates for a single room are almost the same price as a double room, and mostly they are double rooms anyhow. I prefer places recommended for their ‘especially clean rooms’ for obvious reasons. Most places in Europe have a bathroom with a hot shower, sheets, towels and little bottles of intensely fragrant shower gel. Most appreciated after a sweaty day.

I know some people think an e-bike is a scooter. You just sit on it and go places. That is half-true if you ride for a couple of hours with battery set on turbo. One must pedal to actually move forward. However, a fully loaded bike will soon run out of battery power and leave you struggling especially in the Alps. One has to be thrifty and use the lowest assistance possible at all times.

Shoes are important, and my Colombo hiking shoes have been very comfortable. They have cut-outs which allow air and sunlight in. The feet are tanned in giraffe-like spots. The nose is dangerous terracotta colour and the legs are shaping up a bit. I think.

Austrian food has nothing to do with Roman food. Animals and their milk appear in almost every dish here, while in Rome it’s all about tomatoes and olive oil. Sipping on a little glass of wine is a luxury I allow myself after all the bumping and steering and pedalling of the day. Pasta is the easiest thing to digest, can’t seem to manage a whole portion. Today for lunch I had half an energy bar and felt full.

Off to bed now, it’s 21:00. Simon says I must ride over The Arlberg pass tomorrow, “don’t take the train”. The pass is 1800m high. The sound of it gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll check the map in the morning and decide.

See the route map here

NEXT BLOG WILL BE PUBLISHED ON MONDAY. I need to do some painting tomorrow!


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Day 18 – Merano to Burgusio – ONE THOUSAND kms

day 17 - 1000kms since Rome

The day begins with a bit of light pedalling up through the Val Venoster/Vinchgau valley towards the Resia/Reschen pass. This is another historical route called the Via Claudia Augusta. The locals are Italian by law but they are trilingual, German, Italian and English. Tourists are cycling down the valley to Merano in droves. They whizz down then catch the train back up to their hotels.

This fabulous cycle track winds through vast plantations of apple and pear orchards. Following the now chalky blue Adige river to her source. The second longest river in Italy. Stone peaks break the skyline high above, patches of ice lie on the upper slopes. The temperature down in the valley is around 30 degrees, the hottest day ever recorded here.

A huge apple packing shed is covered with solar panels. Farmers spray clouds of chemicals on the emerging apples, forcing me to speed up to avoid getting caught in it. Perfect little apples hang on their stalks like green beads. Petals carpet the ground in snowy white.

My little computer shows 999,99 kms for a while until I realise it needs to be reset to zero. Hallelujah 1000 kms exactly at the apple store. You can pour yourself a glass of fresh apple juice, or bite an apple, just pop some money in the box and off you go. One hopes the chemical spray is not too harmful. In Italy, genetically modified crops are not permitted, forcing farmers to use more chemicals instead. Wonder which is better?

A young Italian couple stop their bikes next to me at the apple store. I raise my cup of apple juice towards them and say “cin-cin! Can you believe it, I have cycled one thousand kilometres from Rome to this very spot?” The couple say “Auguri” and offer to take a photo of me standing next to my bike. Pride comes before a fall warns the inner voice.

1000 kms

A man on a racing bike stops to tell us about cycling 800 kms in Siberia and raves on about something which I can’t quite follow. The couple tell him that “this Signora” nodding at me, “has just completed 1000 kms from Rome”.

The man changes direction and says he is going my way. He rides off ahead of me shouting about all his cycling accomplishments. He stinks. Following in his wake leaves me wafting through a cloud of body odour. I do my best to overtake and shake him off by surging forward when the track is clear, but he hangs at my side. E-bikes are fabulous but the battery only assists you up to 24 kms per hour. Beyond that it’s up to your own pedal power. Eventually I get ahead and pump away at my pedals.

A beer garden packed with cyclists looks likes a good place to hide. I hurriedly park my bike amongst the hundreds of others and run inside. The bombastic man miraculously appears and offers me a drink. I gabble something about friends and plonk myself down on a bench next to a German couple who are eating lunch. They immediately understand the situation and play along. The man vanishes.

After nice lunch with the Germans, I turn out of the gate onto the road without checking. A speed-biker almost collides with me. We both swerve, but he screams curses at me. Quite demoralizing curses. Shaken up at first but then realise how lucky I was, what an important lesson without having to learn it the hard way. Negotiating speeding cyclists is another skill I must learn on these crowded cycle tracks. Gone are the long dreamy days on the dykes.

Soon I see ‘the man’ again, washing his shirt in the river.

He waves. I speed away.
The cycle path takes me into a thickly wooded area. I’m crunching along on the grit, nobody in sight, happily looking into the depths of the woods for a glimpse of an animal or bird. Suddenly the bombastic voice booms over my shoulder and I wobble with fright “Non devi preoccupare – don’t worry it is only another 4 kms of dirt before we get back on the tarred road”. He jabbers on and on. He says “Germans are harder than Carrera marble, I worked in Germany for five long years and never made a single friend.” No bloody wonder, I think.

I put my bike in turbo mode, rudely overtake him and go as fast as I can to the next town Prato Allo Stelvio. Turning in my seat to check behind me and nervously look in my rear-view mirror at intervals. Seem to have shaken him off.

A little way beyond Latsch, a pretty lake-side cafe beckons, set in a green garden just the type of place I like. Afternoon sun glimmering on the water. The perfect spot for a delicious Apfel Kuchen with a bowl of hot custard and an Einspänner coffee piled with whipped cream. Calories galore. A weeping willow tree gently trails her leaves in the breeze next to my table. I take a leisurely stroll along the lake shore and photograph some yellow poppies. Sit down on a bench in the sun for a while and smile at the children feeding the fish, enjoying thoughts of my grandchildren. Feeling a bit lonely about my one thousandth kilometre, so call Simon tell him, and also mention the man.

When I go back to my bike, up jumps bombastic man who was lying on the grass. He continues his vaunting. He wants to know if I’m married and where I’ll be staying tonight. It may be harmless goodwill, but he is intolerable and ruining my day with his smell and verbal diarrhea. I take a photo of him and send it to Simon. As I ride off he is at my side again, hovering like a fly. The pepper spray and a knife are in the handle-bar bag. I wonder if I should I take them out and keep them handy in my pocket?

Annoyance and anxiety tarnish what should be a glorious ride. The wind is coming down hard from the pass and it is difficult going head first into it. I ride off as fast as I can with bike on full power. It’s getting late and there are no riders on the track but I seem to have lost the bombast.

Coming up the hill into a quaint village called Clusio he rushes out from a side road across my path shouting “Ecco La”…. there she is!

“Oh no! Va via!” I shout… GO AWAY!

Switch the bike turbo mode again. Going as fast as I can up the swerving path. The track leads steeply up into a dark wood. Totally alone, my fibrillating heart makes me giddy.

I have booked a room for the night at Burgusio. The next village comes into view but relief is short-lived when I see the sign – Malles. Then I miss a turn which is hard to imagine considering the number of bike route signs. A woman with a pitchfork tells me to go back. Panic floods me when I realise my battery will run out before I reach the safety of Burgusio. The hideous man is hunting me down like a rabbit on this Alpine pass.

I pound desperately at my pedals, panting heavily with strain. The battery is set to ‘eco’ the lowest setting with only 1 km of battery power remaining. Will I make it? Probably not.

Miraculously a tower appears at the top of the slope, a sign of civilization. I can see the town ahead now as my battery runs out. Luckily it’s only a couple of hundred meters to go.

I rush into town to find the Garni apartment hotel with the help of the Google girl voice on my phone. Hoping the man isn’t watching me as I push the bike around to the back of the house to hide while I get my breath back. Then sneak around to ring the front door bell. Nobody answers. I call the number, and a young person answers “I will phone my mother, she is at the hotel but obviously did not hear the bell”. My nerves are on edge waiting like this in full view of the street. A few minutes later the door opens and a small dark woman allows me to scamper in.

71 kms today…uphill all the way.

See the route map here (not 100% accurate)

Eurovelo cycle routes in Europe

the bombastic man
The bombastic man

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Day 17 – Trento to Merano – rainy day

Merano - watercolour by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Riding along warbling a song when I hear popping noises on my helmet and my glasses turned into kaleidoscopes. It is raining again. The body is doing fine, wrapped in plastic but the atmosphere is sheer gloom. After a couple of wrong turns, it’s now full speed on track.

The government has done well making us this cycle track. Smooth, clean and fast. The fields around blur with wispy asparagus plants. New shoots pushing up out of the mud. Two monster tractor machines are moving down the cycle track towards me, mowing the spring flowers growing along the big banks of the dykes. Long arms, meters wide on each side, cut and suck bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, along with forget-me-nots, poppies, fennel, buttercups and other beauties, all into a big bin truck.

I get off my bike and gesture to the drivers to stop, but they ignore me and continue their devastating job. The resulting scene is a boring mass of chopped-off stalks for the next 15 kilometres. I pedal furiously along the bulging Adige river. She looks grey and devoid of flowers.

What is this coming up? A proper bicycle station, with restaurant and clean toilets! I feel pleased as I park my bike under a little roof with all the other bikes and go inside for a cappuccino. How pleasant to commiserate with fellow cyclists on a rainy day?

But nobody speaks to me. The guests are all athletic men dressed in racing gear. They wouldn’t speak to an eeee-biker I suppose, or could it be that I have taken my unattractive look too far? My face is completely naked – no lipstick – mascara – eyeliner – brow pencil – or concealers. Helmet hair isn’t gorgeous either.

The hot soup at Egna Neumarkt Post restaurant is good. Not realising that the padded bum-bum of my tights retains water just like a nappy, I plonk down on a cushiony couch to look at the newspaper. When I get up to go to the loo, there’s a wet patch on the seat. “Oops, was that me?” The waitress gives me a sour look.

A big yellow detour sign “Deviazione – Umleitung” stops me in my tracks. The alternative route is full of puddles, apparently a practice ground for young men in fast cars. Trucks come thundering passed blasting dirty road spray.

I find myself lost and going into Bolzano by mistake so I phone Simon who is in an important meeting. He says turn around and go back. The umleitung tricked me into missing a pedestrian bridge across the Adige river. This is the junction where the valleys fork. I’m supposed to go left to Merano. The track leads uphill through some barrel-vault stone tunnels, nicely lit for bicycles. Then curve steeply up a mountainside between pretty farms and thick forests until I realise the river is missing.

Wrong VALLEY! This is way the back to Lago di Garda!

Another U-turn and a fast decent back to the river. That mistake cost me an extra ten kilometres, and a serious climb. On the way down I narrowly avoid a face-on collision with a squirrel who happened to be hanging off the end of a branch eating cherries. We come eyeball to eyeball for a fraction of a second and I crick my neck to dodge the little thing. There are other small wild animals here in the mountains – a black velvet mole that nudged my foot in the grass earlier and a lost duckling who couldn’t see his mother duck down the road, so I get off the bike to herd it towards it’s mom.

Happily doing 30 kph along the flat -topped dyke heading straight for Merano. The lovely valley is tranquil and radianting green. The clouds break and the air becomes thin and unearthly.

Merano – South Tyrol

Merano looms up and shows off her beautiful public gardens and thermal baths. I have never seen such gorgeous colour coordinated flower beds. Wine red to candy red, pink to peach to cream to mustard yellow. The spring flower show is spectacular here.

Outside the camping ground is the groovy Bar Erika and a nice man plugs in my flat phone behind the bar counter. For accommodation he points his yellow smoking finger at hotel Isabella down the road.

A sharpish waiter at Forsterbräu Meran Birreria brings me goulash and beer for dinner. My mother-in-law told me beer is poison for the joints. She is right, but how can I avoid beer with goulash? My hands are becoming claws, so sore I find it difficult to hold a knife and fork. At night I flatten them out carefully on either side of me and wait for sleep to overcome the pain. My bum is black and green across the sit-bones. I know this because I took a photo of it (permanently deleted now).

Record distance today 108 kms. The sinews in my legs are beginning to show.
61 hours in the saddle since Rome.

Total 967.15 kms.

See the route map here.

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Day 14 – Mirandola to Mantova – the Po River.

Po River snake Day 13 by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Known for her exquisite beauty, Mantova of Lombardy is yet another World Heritage site.  Virgil was born nearby, and Shakespeare’s Romeo was banished here after seducing Juliet.

Finding a place to stay every night is challenging.  It is midsummer and certainly a dream to cycle through this fairy landscape, but there are floods of tourists gobbling up all the accommodation. Sleeping alfresco would be a nightmare.

“You’re such a softy” Simon says on the phone.  And another thing, this painful saddle has not improved and neither have my knees. And my wrists are feeling it too.

I left my comfy hotel room in Mirandola after an egg breakfast this Sunday morning. It’s one of those mustard and blue Van Gogh days with ripe wheat all over the place. There seem to be a variety of grains growing here. People prefer the ancient grains for making their daily dose of pasta. Not only are they more nutritious but also much less damaging to the environment than the hybrid types. Poplar trees rustle with heat along the Secchia river. I’m back on the dyke again today.

On the flats one tends to focus on the things right in front of you. Yesterday Giorgio said he usually goes up onto the dykes to see the sunset. It occurred to me that when you live on level ground, one doesn’t get to see much of the sunset. Going up to dyke height can make all the difference. But is also good to focus on what is right in front of you. Namely stones, holes, sharp objects, glass, snakes and anything that could make you fall down.

You’d think cyclists would prefer downhills to uphill’s. But like life, the ups are way more interesting, and you get a great sense of pleasure when you reach the top. Whereas the downs, as in life, are mostly just a whizzing blur and then you feel a little sad that it’s over so soon.

On my way I quickly visited the small town of San Benedetto Po, centred around a spellbinding monastery founded in 1007, the Abbey of Polirone. I popped my head into the great door of the Basilica. The air was impregnated with incense and candles glowed in the spicy darkness. I couldn’t leave my bike alone, so rested under the enormous cloisters and chatted with a family from France.

I’m very excited to reach the Po river, the longest, biggest river in Italy. This is the second day of cycling in this enormous catchment area, known for the great cities of Turin, Milan and Venice.  Over millennia, the Po has been the life blood of a large part of Italy. Water tests have shown shockingly high levels of cocaine. Four kilograms per one thousand people to be exact. Until 2002 all of Milan’s poop flowed directly into the river without treatment.

At last I caught a glimpse of the dark Po. Wide, green and calm. It lapped at the feet of a restaurant where waiters served me a plate of serrated tagliatelle with smoked salmon (no cream), and plenty of roasted vegetables drowning in olive oil. The outdoor dining area is closed to the river with plastic curtains. Views are not a high priority. Understandably the Great Outdoors is full of dangers, this spot in particular must have seen many marauding tribes, maybe a Goth or a Gaul, or even Obelix himself making a crossing. A long green snake crossed over my path, poor thing wiggled as fast as it could beneath the wheels.

I rolled into Mantova this afternoon at around 16:00. People strolled along banks of three lakes, which are actually moats built to protect the town.

732 km from Rome.

48 hours in that …. saddle since the ride began.

Finding a place to stay

Tonight, I am going to Industrial street nr.4. A B&B “Un passo da.” Translation: “A step away from.”

Industrial street 4 is an address with connotations. The place happens to be on the other side of the lake and not in the quaint centre of town. After I cross the bridge, my heart sinks a little when the Google voice directs me into a cement suburb. I only switch to voice guidance on Google maps when a recharge is imminent. Zigzagging along grey streets, my heart sinks again when the road takes me onto a highway. Big trucks threaten to smear me along the barrier rails. Soon I careen into a circle which brings me to a fly-off, and fly off I do, onto a smaller road which leads to the house over the railway and behind some factories. 

Two lovely ladies, Lucy Liu and her sister-in-law Stefania, are most surprised to see me on a bicycle. They greet me warmly and help me in with the panniers. Lucy Liu offers to drive me to a local restaurant for pizza, then pick me up again much later. She has another engagement to attend to. I decline and take a shower, spending the evening painting in my diary before collapsing in a hungry heap on the bed, pizza-less.

See the route.

Mantua - photo by Leanne Talbot Nowell
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Day 12 – Riola to Rocca di Vignola …the DOG

BEWARE of the dog watercolour painting by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Waiting in the pitch dark my ears tuned in for the slightest sound. But there was silence apart from a twitter of a night bird. I lay awake for a long time wondering if I should go and see if Giuseppe was ok, but he had locked the door when he left and I didn’t have a key. There was no phone connection and nobody else on the farm. The inner voice said it was probably just a ghost and it’s time to go to sleep now.

In the morning the sun was shining and there was no sign of blood. Only a majestic view of the mountains. Giuseppe had vanished but breakfast was waiting on the table. I ate it all before loading my panniers and riding down the mountain to the main road at Riola.

500 kms.


Believe it or not but that terribly steep road I went up to yesterday to the ill-fated Il mio Refugio, is to be mine again today. It’s necessary to cross over through Montese on the crest, and down into the parallel valley.

The area is famous for nine mineral springs, some of them salty. According to the information poster in town, the area was considered sacred since the bronze-age. Cattle farmers would come from all around to perform rituals at an ancient lake which has disappeared now.

Goats and sheep munched at the edge of the road as I slogged up the switchbacks. A big green snake slithered along next to my wheel. Cherry trees dripped with fruit. Roosters crowed.

It took all morning to traverse the mountain. A bit like a game of snakes and ladders. Going down the other side was beautiful and quick, and I felt thrilled to have made it across the Apennines and into the catchment of the Po Valley.

Farmers were selling fresh cherries along the roadside. There are two types Duroni are scarlet and a bit tart, compared to Ciliegie, the sweet dark red juicy type. I stopped and bought a celebratory bagful of ciliegie from a lady and her daughter at my grand total of 500 kilometers mark. They took my picture.

Lunch on the banks of the wide stoney river Panaro at ‘Antica Osteria Ponte Samone’ was excellent. That’s where I met a travelling man called Carlo. He had a tiny black puppy in a backpack and told me to go to Rocca di Vignola. So I did.

The road there was overrun with speeding trucks. Some rumbled dangerously close to my shoulder. At the medieval village of Vignola there is a fascinating castle (Rocca) and a lovely posh bed & breakfast & dinner & lunch at Civico 7. A cyclone was passing over so I stayed safely home in the solid stone house. Happily spent the rainy day painting and eating wonderful homemade food with my generous and attentive hosts Cristina and Valta.

The room bragged a fancy spa shower which took me a while to figure out. When you’re an older person and slightly blind like me, those showers with levers, taps and switches can leave you feeling quite exposed. I felt like a Caravaggio character lounging around on the artfully arranged antique furniture picking at bowls of fat juicy cherries and sweets.

Valter was born in this house. It is immaculately renovated and maintained. In the dark attic stands a row of twelve wooden barrels full of wine becoming balsamic vinegar. Every year the contents of each are moved to the following barrel, and the first barrel is filled with fresh wine, until by the time it reaches barrel twelve it has become a glossy black syrup. It is then bottled. Some of the bottles are way more than one hundred years old, made by the ancestors. It is sweet and utterly delicious. I was treated to their balsamico on slabs of Grana Padano cheese.

The farmers made a lot of noise blasting projectiles into the clouds to ‘open’ them so it doesn’t hail on the ripening cherries. Boom, boom all day and night.

Then something unexpected happened. I went downstairs to the garage to fetch something from the bike bag, when a monstrous black Doberman charged at me. He made no sound except for his ghastly nails scratching the cement driveway. Valter who happened to be sweeping nearby, shot over to intercept him, taking the full force of the hugely muscular body with the broom handle planted diagonally across his chest. I made a really fast dash up the steps to the safety of my room.

Some deep survival instinct tells you when an animal is about to kill or simply scare you off… this dog was not trying to scare me off.

I found out later that he usually lives in a cage behind a hedge. He has never been out on a street because he’s too big and vicious to handle. So if you go and stay with Valter and Christina, make sure you don’t wander around unexpectedly.

See the route.

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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.