Saturday, November 11, 2006

Bike fuel

On any cycle pilgrimage food matters. Italy understands this well as pasta is perfect for topping up and restocking carbs. They also give you enough tomatoes and veggies to keep your vitamin levels high, your blood clean and happy, and your bottom on top form.

As a non meat eater Italy is perfect, they don't eat meat all the time, and do fabulous things with spinach. Spain does pretty well, with plenty of veg and fish choices, but France proved more difficult with menu du jour seemingly rotating between steak (horse) and veal. I've never eaten so many omellettes in my life, and that can have terrible digestive consequences.

Wherever I'm cycling I make sure to top up on fruit and carry some with me when I see it. It really makes a difference to how I feel.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Cycling realities

The reality of long distance unsupported cycling trips is that you have to carry eveything with you, and you have to wash clothes everynight so you have something to wear the next day. I've looked at some of the finest scenery in Europe through a veil of drying Lycra.

One top tip for women cyclists - bikini tops are better than bras, there's no nipple rub from lace, the material dries quickly and copes well with constant washing in shampoo, and you don't need to bring a separate swimsuit.

Bravissimo does a good range of underwired ones in the sort of sizes you need underwired ones in. They aren't cheap, but they last well without, well, there's no other word for it, sagging. Even if you don't!

Start the pilgrimage

Friday, October 20, 2006

Ash tray apparition

Cycling in the sun can send you a little squiffy.

I was tempted to take this ashtray from the hostel in Siena as I thought it had an image of the face of Jesus in it! I couldn't steal it, that has to be bad kharma (mixing my religious references for a moment), and didn't have one to exchange it for, so if you're in Siena at the Donzella, then look out for it.

Start the pilgrimage

Thursday, September 21, 2006

What's next?

So what's next after the Via Francigena? I've cycled to Santiago already.

A pilgrimage to Jerusalem would complete the trio, but it's not a very practical option. Two chubby women travelling alone and in Lycra are more likely to cause an international incident in Syria than find a nice hostel for the night.

Our next trip was to follow 'The Way of Saint Martin' along the Loire to Tours. I've yet to dream up a new adventure, and would welcome your suggestions for mediaeval pilgrimage routes, in Europe or beyond.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Day 10 Sutri to Rome

We set off down and out of town onto good old SS2. It wasn’t too bad at first but there was quite a bit of traffic. We took a slight detour into Monterosi as the road ran parallel but was quieter. It was also quite a climb. We stopped for cash and for a mad old guy to shout at us and wave his walking stick at me.

We rejoined the road as it got busier and hillier. We stopped for coffee and a bun at a roadside place to take a break from traffic but were soon on a dual carriageway with crumbling road and limited hard shoulder. There was quite a steep climb ahead, but luckily for us there was a traffic jam so we slowly went past the cars on the inside, our 5mph looking pretty speedy to them. There had been a fairly unpleasant accident with a road sweeping truck, a Renault and a motorbike.

The descent was fast and long, but I had to keep breaking because the road quality was so poor. The after effects of the accident helped us out as the cars were only coming through one by one cutting the flow and giving us room, but soon it was back to normal, squidged against the barrier and hanging on tight.

Another climb and another descent, on which I got whacked by a plant which left quite a few scratches and a large lump. I felt a bit bad as I think I ran over a lizard’s tail but Lou said he looked back and ran off so he should be OK.

We reached La Storta, our proposed stop, but it was only 10:15 and we’d only done 20 miles so we carried on to Rome. It was good when the SS2 split into two, we took the old road and left the dual carriageway behind. It wasn’t pretty – we went through retail parks and slightly dodgy looking suburbs on barely navigable tarmac. One right turn over a railway was almost impossible because of crap tarmac on a steep bend, but on the other side we entered Rome. Go us!

We still had a long way to go but now it was downhill. We went past some impressive villas , including Villa Stuart. We rolled into what seemed like town. It had a one way system but we couldn’t find the streets in my Rome book. We just carried on. After a while we spotted the Tiber and so tried to navigate in from there, but some of the buildings didn’t appear in the guide and so it was hard.

We decided to abandon the book and go with gut instinct and soon picked up signs to St Peter’s. The traffic was horrid and we dodged as best we could until we turned the corner and saw St Peter’s. I figured the traffic could dodge us from now on.

We cycled up to the barrier outside the piazza but a chap warned us that although we could take our bikes in we couldn’t leave them unattended. We stood in awe for a while then went to find a convent to stay in around the back. Neither of the ones we tried would let us, one only had reserved places, the other didn’t answer the door or the phone.

We walked back around, got some ‘pope water’ from a water fountain and I asked the tourist information guy for help. He wouldn’t find us a place to stay but could point us towards the station where all the hotels were. We set off, part cycling, part walking depending on one way systems. We were stopped by a policeman who said the road was closed but agreed we could go “at your own personal risk” on foot. We did. We carried on towards the station through scary traffic and Roman ruins until we reached Albergo Romano .

We had to manoeuvre our bikes down a flight of stairs with a dog leg to store them in a crappy underground room full of timber. When we got back up the bloke said the room was €100 including €10 for bike storage. Dream on! I refused and he tried to push it. I said we’d agreed €90 and we would pay that. He stuck his ground for a minute or two, but Lou thought he was scared of me and he backed down. I was perfectly willing to go back down and get the bikes and call the police. I was sweaty and dressed in Lycra. I was scared of me.

We got cleaned up and went downstairs – there were rip off tourist food places outside and I had pizza and Frascati. We strolled down to the Coliseum for a walk around and then into town and the Trevi Fountain. We ate at a fly ridden place where I had ravioli and squid. As we walked back we happened upon the Spanish Steps but the building above was covered up with a giant Puma ad. Back to the Albergo and time for bed.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Day 9 – Viterbo to Sutri

We woke up, again assisted by Lou’s wind, although I’ve grown used to it now. Lou put the panniers in the lift whilst I ran down the two flights of stairs to meet them at the bottom. I didn’t want to get into the lift as it struck me as a small ready meal container, just ready to go into the oven to bake. After paying the receptionist pointed to a breakfast room so we went in. It was juice, croissant and packaged toast. Lou ate the pack of Nutella with a spoon whilst I ate carbs galore.

We set off out of town in morning traffic with a short decline and then rolling hills, no flat at all as we pedalled across ancient lava flows now covered in forest, farmland and retail parks. After a few miles we stopped for Lou to pee at a bar which had ‘bar’ written in beer caps on is mat. We bought Pringles and I got another juice – trying to compensate for yesterday’s vitamin free day.

From there it was a climb, and another and then a really long one. We climbed for the best part of 8 miles. It was getting hot and the road was new so black and sticky. I was glad I’d eaten breakfast. After two map chevrons worth of climbs it was over. We began a fabulous descent, again 8-10 miles but with barely any pedalling. It was windy but not so bad we needed to slow below 20 mph for corners. It was beautiful, through forests and we arrived at Sutri in no time.

We could easily have carried on but decided to stay. We wheeled into town and found the tourist office which was closed, not just for lunch, but the week. It was only open Friday – Sunday. Instead we walked back to the sign for the Hotel Sutri, where we are now.

Lou got showered and went to sleep. I did the same, but woke up after an hour – frozen by over enthusiastic air conditioning. Lou is still asleep and snoring, three hours on. I’m watching MTV and airing the cyclists ‘nappy rash’ on my bum. It’s really sore and is my main impediment to cycling. Overall I’m pretty uninjured. I have blisters on three toes, but don’t feel them. My insect bites are just itchy spots, some of which bleed now and again. I have a few bruises on my shins and calves. My left ankle is sore, I think because I over compensated when I ‘surprised’ my right one. My leg muscles area little achy but not painful, my skin is fine, except for my nose which is still cherry red and starting to peel. I put a lens back in my right eye today, with no problems. My wrists are a little swollen and that’s it. I’m injury free!

We got up and went for a mooch about. Sutri is beautiful, with some excellent churches. The cathedral is quite spectacular with lovely frescoes on the ceiling. We went to another church which was clearly old and had not been restored. The frescoes had crumbled off but I really liked it.

We sat in the central piazza drinking Peroni, eating home made ice cream and watching the world go by for a couple of hours. Kids were playing on bikes and scooters and the local policeman was attending his station. It was really relaxed. We went for dinner at Ristorante “Il Vescovado” but it wasn’t open. A bloke sitting on the doorstep further down the road shouted at us to come back in ten minutes and it’d be open. We sat down the road then walked back using baby-steps to kill time. Despite having stopped back at the room to get my credit card, the restaurant didn’t take credit cards. Boo. We ordered carefully as the cashpoint didn’t accept our cards. I had porcini pasta – big super fat spaghetti with porcini and truffle oil topped with herbs and more oil. Scrummy. I thought I’d ordered baked cheese, but meat on a stick arrived. Jack Nicholson, our waiter/cook agreed to give me a big plate of cheese and bread instead. He seemed to be greeter, cook and waiter despite having four hangers on who just brought bread.

Oddly we were the only diners for quite a while then two blokes arrived, another who ate alone then five men who ate together. It was boys’ night out.

Back to the hotel to apply more cream to my cyclists bum. My bott has appreciated the short days, it has been really sore and seems to have bursting spots.

There was blood all over my left sock when I took it off. I’d caught my leg on a pedal earlier, so I suppose the scab came off. I’m watching Juventus play Roma then it’s bed time.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Day 8 – San Lorenzo Nuovo – Viterbo

We had a lie in til 7:45 as Lou’s bottom didn’t wake us. After a good breakfast of cheese, bread, yogurt, honey and an unpleasant croissant with hot marmalade in the middle we packed the bikes. A Swiss chap came to tell us what our route should be. He explained that all the Etruscan men and boys in the neighbourhood had been slaughtered and the women and girls had been rounded up and shipped off, so we should cycle up a nearby volcano which was too steep for cars, then go to the coast to see some nice Etruscan tombs. We listened politely and thanked him. Another old bloke came along to boast about his wines being made from original Etruscan grapes. It was time to leave.

There was a strong side wind, I didn’t mind though, it wasn’t so bad that stability was a problem and there wasn’t much traffic. There was a fabulous view of the lake. We passed the German couple who we’d seen at San Quirico on the hill. They’d stopped for a chat. It was a long slow climb for ten miles or so before we reached the last steeper climb into Montefiascone. We could see the dome of the church for some distance.

The traffic in town was manic and the signage poor. We abandoned our bikes by the tourist office and took a look at the Church. It had plenty of art and was perfectly round with little altars all around, but like a lot of the churches here it lacked warmth or character and felt more like a gallery.

We stopped for Est! Est!! Est!!! . It wasn’t very good, but at least I’d had some here. We braved the traffic to set out of town. It was a glorious ride out downhill for five straight miles and gently downhill or flat for another five. Just a short climb from here to Viterbo.

We headed straight to Santa Rosa and the convent. Lou had a fag outside whilst I went in to ask if we could stay. There was no-one about but the door was open so I ventured in looking for an office – I found Santa Rosa! – preserved in a glass box with silver and gold angels all around. I scurried out as fast as my legs would carry me. I went back in with Lou – a bonus body, but still no room. We could hear the nuns singing and the sign said open at 3 so we went for an ice cream and waited.

At 3 we went back and pressed the buzzer. I couldn’t make myself understood in Italian so they found a nun who spoke English as well as I spoke Italian. They called us through and enthusiastically showed us the body, very proudly, gave us our prayer cards, and sent us on our way.

We set off to find somewhere else to stay. The tourist office found us a room at the Leon d’Oro which claims 3 stars at €57. It’s grim but had cycle racing on TV so we watched the rain in BeNeLux. After getting cleaned up we set out into town. The internet point on our map was closed so back to the tourist office. We found one, eventually, and Lou blogged. What we couldn’t find was a place to eat. There were occasional pizza and hot dog type places, but no restaurants or even bars serving actual food. We walked and walked but found nothing. Eventually we stopped at the BlueAngel cafĂ©. Lou had a curious prawn and ham sandwich and I had a courgette, cheese and aubergine panini that got stuck on the grill – stuck in the bacon fat. It was foul but I was so hungry I ate ¾ of it just to get some sugar to my brain so we could find something real to eat.

We went back to the place we’d had ice cream earlier and I had a tuna and artichoke sandwich. It was clean in there but I didn’t like it so we mooched up to the take away pizzeria where I had cherry tomato and mozzarella pizza, sold by weight and warmed up, served with beer. It was the most vegetable I had had all day. We picked up a couple of beers and juices to take back to the room, and we walked back, past two perfectly good restaurants which would have sold us good food. Boo.

The ‘orange’ juice turned out to be orange, carrot and lemon – a mix that sounds terrible but was lovely. I drank it and watched some of the athletics in Helsinki whilst writing postcards and chatting.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Day 7 - San Quirico D'Orcia - Lake Bolsena

We rode out of town with the religious group which turned out well because without the we'd have gone the wrong way. They had a Transit van carrying all their stuff, all the way from Monza. They stopped and we went past them but we could soon hear them singing hymns behind us. They all had matching yellow and white papal cycling gear and the lead rider had a papal flag.

The chain tends to come off when I change into the lowest gear and I've lost the upper gears - 22-24 and 13-16 which isn't helping.

After some rolling up and down hills with plenty of cheeriness from Sunday morning cycling blokes we began a very slow incline. There was a fierce headwind and my legs felt like pudding. It didn't look like much of a climb but I was really struggling. My peach and apricot breakfast was not enough and Betty's potion wasn't doing its stuff. Luckily it was overcast or it would have been too awful. My determination and strength were sapping away. I stopped at a petrol station hoping for chocolate but it was closed so I ate my last tomato and we carried slowly on, blown back by the wind. We were in arable country now, no sangiovese vineyards but some evil sunflowers.

After what seemed like hours we reached a tunnel. On the upside it meant we'd missed the giant climb, but on the downside it was 875m long and to avoid it we'd need a major, full day detour. We put our lights on. I took my sunglasses off, slurped a half bottle of potion and went hell for leather. It was a very slight decline, which was good and we maintained a 20mph average throughout. Fortunately what traffic there was was headed the other way and we were safe.

We stopped at the first bar we saw. It was grim. We had coffee and grotesque chocolate croissants in sealed packages. They had 26 ingredients - 26!- but even with all of them it was still horrid. I was convinced that the woman running the bar was the wife of a mafiosi in jail, stationed there to keep quiet and out of the way.

From there we descended for a while and cruised along, much easier riding, although much warmer in the valley. It was fine until a steep climb into Aquapendente. I stopped and scavenged for blackberries - the best blackberries in the world. I spotted a scary sleeping sheep. I thought it was dead, but it moved. The blackberries almost gave us the strength we needed to continue. Lycra boys shouted to check we were OK, which was sweet.

In town we searched for the convent and after asking help from several people, including a man who went to find his daughter to give us directions in English, and then said "Auf Weidesein", and proudly congratulated himself "Bravo per me!". The convent was in a beautiful spot, on top of the hill with fabulous views. However, they no longer accept pilgrims so we could not stay. Our 'back-up hostel' said "no" and so did the hotel Toscana. There was not a room to be found in town.

I was painfully hungry and my brain wasn't responding well so we stopped for lunch. Two Italian blokes were there, in matching yellow cycle tops. We talked to them. They had a week to get to a town whose name I can't remember but it's the last one before the sea and Sicily. They had team shirts with their destination and dates on which they were very proud of. There were supposed to be four on the tour but two dropped out. They had five more hours cycling to do as they had to cover 1000km in the week.

We ordered the same food as them. Lou had bacon pasta and I had rigatoni with ricotta, dried herbs, tinned tomatoes and plenty of olive oil. Lovely. We laughed and chatted with the chaps and they reminded me of Stuart and Cass. They advised us of all sorts of things and they had the tiniest luggage to last them the week. They were worried about the traffic, but we told them it hadn't been too bad outside the cities. They'd struggled with the signs outside Sienna too. They set off and after locking myself in the loo for a moment, so did we.

I was concerned we wouldn't find anywhere to stay, but it was still early and Bolsena looked big enough. We spotted a few campsite signs which were of no use to us but at San Lorenzo Nuovo there were Albergo signs. The places looked grotty and the town less than Nuovo, but everywhere was full. Eventually we saws a totem pole type sign promising bars, restaurants and hotels off to the right. We followed the sign, watching happy holiday makers sun themselves and eat ice cream by the lake. It didn't look hopeful. Lou went into the first and only Albergo on the street and after some confusion about bed numbers and sleeping arrangements we secured a double room. With a balcony - cool!

We sat out for a while looking at the lake, which had breaking waves all over it from the wind. I was hot so went in to lie down and was soon asleep listening to the waves outside. After getting cleaned up we walked up to Super Mario Camping' and got cards, Chianti, Gorgonzola and Ritz crackers, then mooched back for dinner in our hotel's restaurant. I had scampi gnocchi, but the gnocci looked like it had been extruded through a pasta machine and cut into mean lozenges, rather than lovingly crafted into pillows of potato heaven. Baked giant prwns and roast vegetables made up for it.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

VF Day 6 Sienna - San Quirico D'Orcia

We set off for the church of Santo Domingo, a huge building on the edge of the centre by the stadium. It was an odd feeling inside as there were no pews in the main body of the huge church, so it was more like a church hall about to put on a beetle drive. I felt like I should give blood.

We did see St Catherine's thumb - grimly preserved and greyish pink next to a bust of her containing her 'head parts' and a box containing the chain she whipped herself with. Grim.

The stained glass looked pretty poor. It seemed new. We set off out of town on busy roads in commuter traffic with all road signs leading to Rome, in every direction. Pretty soon we were rolling free on undulating roads. After 8 miles we stopped at a roadside stall for peaches and apricots and a banana for Lou and tomatoes for me. We spotted a fruit called 'Claudie'! I think it was greengages. We stayed for sandwiches and coffee and then set off for Buenconvento which we reached in great time. We strolled around the market looking for a replacement for Gulliver, but with no luck. Then onwards and upwards.

The first 20 miles of the day were a breeze relatively speaking and we made good time but the last stretch was tough. There were a few climbs followed by one giant one. OK, not giant but 200m over 4 km with a few flat bits and a scary tunnel, all just after noon. We scrambled from shady spot to shady spot. We saw a patch of cypress trees on a hill in the middle of farmland and couldn't work out why they were there. I now know it's so they can sell postcards of them - they're a standard Tuscan image.

When we finally made it here to San Quirico d'Orcia we stopped just inside the city walls for apricots. The town seemed deserted and it got no better as we walked in. We dropped the bikes by the church and strolled around but everything was closed. The tourist office re-opened at 3 so we went for an ice cream and sat and waited. A poke about town did not reveal the hostel, although I asked at a place where lots of cyclists in Team Francegina shirts we going but it wasn't there. Lucky because later we saw them having a prayer meeting. We sat at a bar and had a beer and some water. A few other cyclists with panniers arrived. The park in the distance appeared to be full of naked people, but on closer inspection they were clay statues.

We walked up to the tourist office which opened shortly after 3. The woman checked with the hostel by phone and the bloke came over to tell us that he was not only full, but that he had 29 residents and only 26 beds. A troop of scouts we'd seen earlier should have given us a clue.

A Scandinavian family were trying to find a room for 3. Unfortunately for them the cheapest place in town only had a room for 2. Lucky us, we swooped in and pinched it. It smells a bit, and is above the bar, but it will do. We stayed and I had a nap until 7 when I could hear life below. The tourist office had closed so no stamp but Louise did buy a replacement for Gulliver. I wanted to call her Catherine, but we settled on Guiseppe.

We found a fabulous garden restaurant - Trattoria al Vecchio Forno for dinner. I tried a glass of Brunello di Montalcino (couldn't really afford a bottle) and had more angel dancing soup, but it wasn't as fabulous - it tasted too fresh and could have done with a night in the fridge. I had a tuscan baked mushroom risotto which was good, topped, I think with powdered polenta and served with grilled peppers, aubergines and courgettes. Scrummy. I wanted vin santo for pudding but couldn't remember the name of the biscuits so mimed the action. This amused the waiter who brought Lou her panna cotta and me my .

We wandered back through town where the dregs of the Sienna Jazz Festival had been happening earlier and then onto the main square which was filled with bench seating for locals hosting some sort of sports awards dinner, then strolled off to bed. Sleep wasn't seemingly a realistic option as there were fireworks and partying til 4, but I was pooped and so did get to sleep, waking every hour with the church bells.

My experiments with factor 20 suncream are over. I'm burned on my arms, face and hands. To a lobster degree.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

VF Day 5 San Gimignano - Siena

Maria was good last night. The clapping went on too long, and the packing away was loud and went on for ever.

Lou's bottom woke us up by burping. She still had a bad tum. My eyes opened slowly and the light seemed to hurt it so I put sunglasses on. I was worried that I might have to quit as it felt so swollen and what I could see of it was bright red. Then a real disaster distracted me from my pain - Gulliver was missing! He wasn't in the room so we traced our steps from last night hoping he'd be sitting on the Cathedral steps. He wasn't and we cycled sadly out of town without him, after I'd fashioned an eye patch out of monster plasters.

A whizzy descent took us out of town. We had 6 miles behind us when we stopped for breakfast at Colle di Val d'Elsa in Chianti. I had a scummy mini-pizza - focaccia topped with oodles of tinned tomatoes and herbs and sprinkled with mozarella. Lou had a tuna panini. After a translation error Lou ended up with hot milk so ordered an espresso to go with it whilst I carried our stuff out. On her way out with it she slipped and spilt it everywhere. I poured what was left from the saucer into her milk to make a delicious latte. Almost.

We cycled on for a short while, back into a 'Basso' town, this time knowing what was ahead. My eye patch blew off, and I decided to carry on without it, although I kept my eyes very nearly closed much of the way. Half way up Lou's botty needed a stop so we took one at the first hotel we saw. It was a bit fancy-pants but they sold us tartufo icecreams and we sat outside.

There was plently more cycling to do so we pressed on, stopping at a petrol station for water and to top up Betty's potion for the climb. We carried on up, but when we saw the two German women who'd stopped us this morning to tell us we were only the second set of people with panniers they'd seen all week we decided not to take the detour to Monteriggioni. They were miles above us and it was a straight up and down detour with no miles gained. We focussed on getting to Sienna. It was fortunate that we did as there were plenty more cimbs ahead.

When we arrived here at Sienna it was confusing. Every sign pointed to the centre so we bimbled round before seeing what looked llike city walls. It was a fortress though so we tried again. We found a room at the Donzella as recommended in both guidebooks - cheap but a shared bathroom.

The Cathedral was spangly - black and white stripes but the facade was sadly a giant photo as the real thing is under construction underneath. We went into the 'crypt' which was fabulous, but not really a crypt. It was an old entrance they'd discovered in 1999. They were working on it as we watched. The Baptistry had more wonderful frescoes, with mirrors so you could look upo and not hurt your neck. I wanted to lie on the floor and look up, but I think the staff would have considered that rude.

The Cathedral itself was busy, with marble inlaid floors. There was fabulous artwork on all the walls but we were looking out for relics. We spotted what looked like a skull in a reliquary above a statue of St John and stared for some time at a glass box on an altar to see if its contents resembled a thumb. I asked a couple of staff where St Catherine's thumb was but one didn't know and another gave us really long and convoluted directions which involved crossing town - it was in another church. We left the cathedral and had a drink in a cafe in the square. Then we waited ages until the waiter could be bothered to bring the bill. Getting up to leave worked much better than numerous polite requests.

We stopped at a bar on a super-steep hill for half a litre of red and some water. It was good. Drier and more acidic than at San Miniato, but still cherry juice Sangiovese. The restaurant we'd chosen for dinner, Hosteria il Carroccio, didn't open til 7:30 so after our wine we mooched down. We didn't have reservations so were allotted a table outside. I'm sure Tom Hanks didn't get that treatment when he ate there. More sangiovese and I had a tuscan bean soup - angels dancing on my tongue! As best as I couold tell it had big haricot beans, bread, onions, carrots, spinach and tomatoes, served with red onion pieces for sprinkling. Lou had 'pici' - a particularly fat spaghetti from Sienna. Then I had spaghetti with egg and artichoke which made me think I could make a carbonara with smoked salmon instead of ham or artichoke.

We sat by three German lads, one of whom reminded me of Matthew - he was singing Que Sera Sera. On the other side Clive Sinclair seemed to be having dinner with a gorgeous French woman. After dinner we walked down to Il Campo and sat in the square watching the sky change blues as it got dark. It was beautiful, but we were pooped and strolled home to bed.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

VF Day 4 San Miniato - San Gimignano

I woke up wanting a smidge more sleep. For a monastery in was really noisy. Our room was by the road and people were talking outside all night. There were no monks around to pay but a chap in the kitchen sorted it out and gave us back our British and Pilgrim passports. It was our first nice passport stamp of the trip.

We asked for directions to CastelFiorentino from a woman on the road. She gave us very specific and comprehensive directions, including every turn, bridge and landmark but all I really understood was "down there on the right". So we went down there on the right and finally saw a sign for CastelFiorentino which was great because by then we had descended quite some way. We whizzed down some more and made our way through some wonderful tree lined roads with lush green hills all around, occasionally interupted by industrial estates.

We reached Castelfiorentino far quicker than I expected and stopped for a breakfast of coffee and cold rocket and tomato pizza. Yum. Onwards to Certaldo where we turned off for San Gimignano. It wasn't far but it was up a long and winding hill. I spotted a hilltop town with towers slightly behind us to the left and said "I bet that's it!". Lou Pooh-poohed the thought, but 12km later, it was. The climb was long and as we started it at 11:40 it was hot. We stopped regularly in theshade for water and to rest. Signed beckoned us in for olive oil and wine tastings but all involved hilly detours. There were no ice-cream shops.

Eventually the road levelled off for a while. I saw a small grey/green snake with a black and yellow head. It froze as I approached and then slithered back into the grass by the curb. We stopped at a grocery store for peaches, juice and water. We were only a few minutes climb from town back into another walled city.

We stopped to check the address of the monastery and as Lou looked it up I noticed we were sitting outside it. We rang the bell but there was no answer. It was closed between 12:30 and 3:00 and it was 12:39. Boo.

We went to a cafe in tourist central where we had tuna and tomato focaccia and I had a glass of San Gimignano. It was good. Lou had a Diet Coke. We sat for ages and a giant cricket type insect bounced off my head onto the pavement. Small boys gathered to take photo's of it.

We left at around 2:30 and went to sit outside the monastery. A crazy, aggressive Italian woman kept driving past us and hassling us to stay at her hotel. I was too scared to. At 3 I rang the bell. No reply. I rang the main monatsery bell, no reply. A Dutch bloke came and rang the bell. Nothing. I asked Lou to look up the phone number and call them. We could hear the phone ringing inside. Lou passed the phone to me. I asked for two beds. I was told "No, full" and was uncerimoniously hung-up on. Lou was hysterical as she'd heard the monk's "No!" without needing the phone.

We plodded sad faced into town aiming for the tourist office. They said they had rooms - 60E, or 70E with breakfast. We passed on breakfast.

A bloke came in to the office and an argument ensued. I was forgotten. Eventually the ice-cream eating assistant glanced at me and I asked her for direction to our room. Our arguing man was to take us. It's a good, clean double room just around the corner from the cathedral. It's in a house with multiple rooms. It's a bit like Joe's house in Rabanal del Camino!

We got cleaned up and I caught a spot of BBC News whilst Lou showered. I took out my right lens as my eye had been sore all day. I thought it was suncream in my eye at first, but then it felt like there was sand or something in there. I washed it out as best I could with re-wetting drops, but it was sore and swollen and kept watering.

We went out to the Cathedral and had to put on shoulder covers as we'd forgotten to wear sleeves. I otched my shorts down a bit so that they just covered my knees (and bum) otherwise I'd have had to wear a long blue piece of cloth as a skirt. Little girls all over town were sporting natty outfits they'd fashioned from big blue triangles and squares.

The Cathedral had marvellous frescoes, including one of San Sebastian peppered with dozens of arrows. There was a New and Old Testament wall and they were like particularly gory Sunday School lesson pictures on two and three levels. We played "Guess the Bible story" which was great fun.

We mooched about a bit. In the main square they were building a stage for Maria ? to sing on tonight. We were hungry but it was only 5 so no-where was open. We ambled outside the city walls to Caffe Mokaflor where I had gnocchi with tomato sauce, and a veggie lasagne. Both were microwave meals, but they filled a gap. Lou wanted to marry the elderly bar owner - Freak! I wanted another flask of cheap sangiovese.

Back into town for postcards and stamps, which proved to be a tough mission. The bloke in the shop flat refused to sell me 20 stamps, even though he had at least 50. In the end his boss was called and we settled on 10. I have no idea what kind of postage related crimes could have been commited if I bought too many stamps, but he was determined to stop me.

We laughed at the petty bureaucracy until we realised that the main square was now sealed off for the opera singing and so we weren't allowed to cross. We walked around but still couldn't get through so I threw a bit of a strop until a woman who seemed to be in charge ushered us through. A sharply dressed young man came to let us out the other side but really struggled to move the barrier as he was weedy.

So now I'm home, my eye keeps watering, I have over a dozen bites, my ankle still feels weird from where I 'surprised' it when the chain came off at the lights, and Lou has the trots. It's Gone 9:30 and Maria hasn't started singing yet. I can't imagine I'll sleep well.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Day 3 Lucca - San Miniato

Woke up in good time, got cleaned up and had a breakfast of bread, cherry jam, nasty orange juice, really nasty coffee and a curiously tasty 'jam cake' which was shortbread topped with apricot jam with more shortbread piped on top and baked.

We set off for the Cathedral. We stopped off at San Frediano's Basilica dedicated to an Irish priest who first built a church there. It was a real bonus. There was a beautiful mosiac front and the rest looked like it was fashioned from marble chunks stolen from Roman buildings and stuck on the front. Inside was a marvel, although our hangman game was ruined by St Zita who lies complete and grossly unembalmed in a glass box on an altar. They also claim to house a drop of Christ's blood chipped off the Volto Santo statue at the Cathedral.

Unfortunately the Cathedral didn't open until 9:30. We went back to the hostel, checked out and set off for a ride around the city walls, it was an absolutely beautiful trip - it's easy to understand why the bike rental places do so well. Plenty of people were jogging, riding, walking and taking their dogs and children around the walls. It was heavenly - topped off when we stopped to watch the local fire brigade practicing their abseiling skills on the walls.

After our tour the Cathedral had opened so we went in. The book shop guy wouldn't stamp our passports and sent us to the ticket lady who tried to send us back to the bookshop guy. After a little negotiation they agreed that no-one would stamp our passports.

The Volto Santo statue said to be carved by Christ's apostle 'Nicodemus' (not one of the 12 I sang about at school), was enclosed in a grotesque dome thing and wasn't as gory as I'd been led to believe. There was a cool statue of San Sebastian (everyone's favourite saint) although his arrows had been removed revealing little holes in the white marble. He was wearing natty little drawstring underpants which I suspect were an afterthought.

Overall the Cathedral wan't all I'd hoped it would be. It had plenty of sarcophigi (is that a real word?) but lacked the over the top splendour of some of the Spanish churches as well as the welcoming feel. Maybe it's me. The Via Francigena isn't well known here and I feel a little like an interloper amongst the expected coach tour groups. Perhaps I just wasn't in a church mood. The pretty church of St Michel in Foro was fine, but again uninspiring inside despite pillars upon pillars on the facade.

We left town and immediately saw a Via Francigena sign and map - woohoo! Unfortunately it didn't tell you which way to go. Boo! We stopped and I was about to ask a burly bank security guard for directions but when he saw me get off my bike he ran inside. Ran!

After a couple of wrong turns we set off to Porcari. Altogether now "Por - cari, wooo-oo, Por - cari, wooo-oo, no wonder my happy heart sings, my bike has given me wings". I was glad to get through to the other side so I could stop myself from singing that every time I went past a sign.

At Altopascio we stopped at a roadside pizzeria for lunch. It was fabulous. A choice of half a dozen 12" pizzas sat behind the counter. We each ordered a slice of funghi and got a 1/4 pizza each for almost no money. He heated it up and we sat down and ate. He gave us plastic cups for our bottled water and sliced our slices into 4. It was divine. The store also sold wine by the bottle and in tetra paks, including little lunchbox sized wine boxes like Ribena. Cool.

A short but mean hill to Galleno was fine and we soon arrived at Fucecchio stopping for ice creams at a bar. This was our intended end point but as tomorrow looks like a big day with multiple climbs we decided to press on. Quickly we came to a bend and I turned for San Miniato but as the next sign said Fucecchio Lou didn't believe me and after some piddling about we resumed our route. We were in San Miniato much faster than I expected but quickly realised it was San Miniato Basso. Basso means low, we wanted San Miniato Alto. After another little bit of route confusion we set off on the climb.

A big tower way up on a hill was our assumed destination. It turned out to be a tower built by Frederick II but the Germans mined it in WWII and it was largely destroyed, but the locals rebuilt most of it in the 50's as an act of pride.

My legs felt like pudding! I really didn't think I had a climb in me. I remembered Betty's magic potion and added some to my water. Lou had some too. It tastes like sherbet lemons, which is nice and it did give me a good sugar boost, but sadly I was not instantly transformed into a Columbian. I climbed slowly, with lots of stops for water and for potion. I was projectile sweating and it seemed to get hotter as we got higher. I was determined to cycle up although Lou was walking some sections. After a final bend and some ribbing from builders I was at the top. WooHoo!

There was a really impressive building that boasted it was the information centre for San Miniato and of the study of medieval times. Inside it had old newspapers and dead pigeons. That was odd as it seemed reasonably new. We carried on to a square by the church, where there really was a tourist information bureau, but it was closed for siesta or whatever the Italian equivalent is.

The map outside showed us where the monastery was and we set off but immediately the road forked and we weren't sure. I asked some blokes in a bar "Dove il strada di San Francisco?". They looked confused and one said something about not speaking Italian and then, in a heavily accented voice, "Do you speak English?", I replied "perfectly!" and his German chums laughed. They suggested I tried California but could be of no further help. I picked a road and we soon saw a sign to San Francesco. It was up another very steep but very short pathway. We carrien on walking up but when I saw a group of half a dozen panniered-up cyclists below I insisted we pelted up to the monastery at full speed to ensure we got a bed.

A delightful woman ushered us in and we left our bikes in a courtyard/cloister which had a lovely garden in the middle and a small window out onto Tuscany. Fabulous. Our 3 bedded room was clean and functional. After a shower I picked up 8 more insect bites in seconds before re-applying repellant. We walked into town in pouring rain which was wonderfully cooling.

The tourist information woman was helpful, marking all the restaurants in town on a map, nut none opened until 7:30. We picked up 3 postage stamps, the full inventory of an unpleasant bar, then set off in search of a beer. I stopped at a pharmacy and showed the pharmacist my most hideously swollen bite, which was on my leg. She laughed and gave me cream.

We found a functional bar with a glorious patio window view, but the wind kept us almost cold. We'd outrun the thunderstorms on the bikes, although we'd seen the lightning behind us and heard the thunder. We wrote our postcards whilst drinking sangiovese and eating freebie pizza bits.

The menu outside the Osteria L'Upupa looked great, but they wouldn't let us in until 7:30 exactly so we mooched about. At 7:31 (we didn't want to seem too keen) we went in and I ordered onion risotto and pasta Napoleone, I ordered fagiole al fiasco too. I chose Napoleone pasta because the town houses Napoleon's death mask, having been home to several of his relatives.

Lou had smoked fish pasta and veal and a salad. We had house sangiovese which was deliciously gluggable cherry flavoured stuff, light but good. An English couple shouted ever louder at the waiters until they fell out with each other and didn't talk at all which was a relief to everyone.

The food was divine. The staff were friendly and helpful and had an Italian-English dictionary to help us with artichokes and whatnot. We got slightly sloshed. Overnight there was plenty of noise outside but I didn't care. I was sleepy.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Day 2 - Luni to Lucca

Got up a bit late and had a measly breakfast of doughnut and double espresso. Lou eased some directions out of the waiter and we set off back to Luni where we got our passports stamped, but got no help in finding a new Pilgrim Passport for Lou. There were Roman ruins aplenty but we didn't stop to look around, we were keen to get going.

The roads were pretty with tomatoes, plums, olives and grapes growinmg everywhere. A mile down the road I realised I'd left my sunglasses back at Luni. Being too mean to buy a new pair we went back. I saw a lovely yellow-brown lizard warming himself on some unassigned Roman ruins piled outside the ticket office. Cool. He could have been a Roman lizard! This made me absurdly happy.

We set off again and at the ten mile point we arriverd at Marinella si Sarzana - 500 yards from where we'd come from an hour earlier. Arrrrghhhhh! I asked a chap "Dove Massa?" and pointed at both ends of the road. He pointed in the direction we'd just cycled from and said "Massa!" in a very authoritative voice. We cycled off through a very sea-sidey town with bingo halls, rides and ice cream stands heading for Avenza and then Massa.

We were in a higly industrialised area, deep in the heart of marble quarrying and processing territory. We carried on with mountains either side of us. Lorries thundered past but mostly they gave us enough room. Scooters seemed the biggest hazard, they're just so unpredictable. I recognised lots of places I'd seen from the train windows, which was fun, but reminded me of ur slow pace. It's interesting to see things other than cyclists with Fasso Bortolo written on them.

There's loads of cyclists of all ages, sizes, shapes and descriptions, and plenty of fairly sderious looking blokes in Lycra. Mostly they wave, laugh or shout "allez" at us. Other blokes, particularly Italian White Van Man, make other comments, which I'm choosing to believe mean "have a good holiday" rather than any body part related remarks.

We stopped at a bar by the road at Capezzano Pianore for lunch. Lou had a tuna focaccia which came with ham and I had a double decker sandwich with cheese on one layer and tomato and mayo on the other. It was OK. Lou nipped over the road for some cherries and peaches for later and we set off again.

We began a long steady climb, easiliy do-able in the biggest chain ring, but pretty unrelenting. Lycra boys were friendly and waving because they knew wwe were about to begin a giant climb. We stopped off to pump air into the tyres at a gas station, but it appeared to have no loos and no shop for water.

We carried on up the hill which had two double chevrons on the map to warn us of the giantness of our task. It was only about a 300m climb in altitude but it took us over an hour, including a peach stop at which my back tyre burst. I think it was over inflated. I replaced it using some foul language and my new plastic tyre lever which is much easier to use than a spoon. I made some fabulous gear impressions in oil on my legs and even my shoulder.

After setting off again a happy lycra boy who waved at us earlier came past on his way back down. He laughed and shouted something. I hoped it was 'nearly there'. We stopped to look down where we'd been. It was beautiful. The villages below looked like tourist brochure pictures. The olive trees were tied together with big nets, bunched upo ready to be unravelled for harvesting. The sky was blue but with enough cloud cover to stop me cooking.

We reached the summit and stopped for granita - ready made slush puppy frozen in a cup. Scrummy. I didn't even mind the brain freeze. Posters reminded us of our achievement as the hill is used for regular races. The downhill stretch was less steep and not bendy, which suited me. It seemed quite slow, but after Lou pointed out that my rear brake was locked on, and I sorted it out, we picked up pace.

The countryside was lush and green reminding me of the French side of the Pyrenees but without the cowbells. As we moved back into a built up area around Lucca the traffic became busier and more difficult to negotiate. I admitted defeat and got off to cross at crossings rather than trying to merge across lanes to turn left.

Just outside town we stopped to check the guides for accommodation. They both recommended the youth hostel San Frediano by the church. We went into town through a narrow arch on a cobbled road into the walled part of the city. The tourist office was dead ahead so Lou went in to get directions whilst I went next door to a bike hire place to get an inner tube - la camera d'aria - which I think translates as the 'room for air', which is cute. The bloke behind the counter took me through the shop, out the back and across the road to his repair place and introduced me to a Chinese guy who spoke some American English. Lucca has lots of bike hire places as you can cycle all around the city walls. We plan to do it in the morning.

Our hostel was just around the corner and for 62E we got a private double room with bathroom. It's actually on two floors with four beds. I'm sleeping downstairs and Lou upstairs.

We took a look around town but the churches were all closed. None of the eateries were really swinging and we were hungry. The walls of the town seemed to be put there to keep tourists in so it's easy to price gouge them. We ate in a square - seafood risotto and aubergine parmasan for me and seafood pasta and tuna salad for Lou. Chianti to share. It wasn't great. We played 100:1. I got 2 and Lou got 6. We started to notice that an unfeasibly high proportion of people were wearing orange trousers. I have no idea why.

The cathedral and St Frediano's looked beautiful but were closed so we mooched back, had a frozen yogurt and now it's time for bed.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Coventry - Luni

Coventry airport is functional - just - you can't get a hot snack and a hot drink at the same shop.We read guidebooks on the plane which did inspire me a little. When we got into the airport at Pisa it was hot.

Fools stood by the baggage carousel, letting their kids play at collecting luggage. It made getting ours off without maiming people difficult but the English fools liked to let their kids get close to the bikes. We unpacked them in the baggage hall, although much of the packing had already come off. Pumping up the tyres was too much effort for Lou so I did that whilst she screwed on the pedals and applied insulating tape to her saddle as it had punctured and the orange gel goo was in danger of oozing out.

We set off for Pisa and the tower. We took multiple wong turns in hideous traffic. People do not seem to pay any attention to road signs, laws or other road users - it's every man for himself.The square with the leaning tower is pretty grim. Gazillions of tourists, loads of fake watch hawkers, and I suspect more than a few dozen pickpockets crowded around. We took the obligatory photographs of us pushing up the tower, including one of Gulliver - Lou's school bear.
The tower itself looked fabulous, but we both felt vulnerable and didn't want to leave the bikes even double locked for a second so we admired from afar and left the church alone. We cycled back towards the railway station and stopped to have lunch at the 'Alle Antiche Navi Snack Bar'. It's on the bend of a fairly busy road in the university district. For no obvious reason a fully loaded hearse stopped outside for several minutes while its driver chatted with someone in the street.

I had scrummy pasta after some confusion about ordering. She offered us 'white or red' pasta which turned out to be cream or tomato sauce with salmon.

We made it back to the station, I even got directions from an old guy on his bike. Lou bought the tickets from a very nice woman who spoke excellent English. We had a 90 minute wait for the local train which would stop at Luni on the way to La Spezia. We sat outside on the grass and wrote postcards. I went for a stroll to get stamps and water. You can only get stamps from a tobacconist, and then only one with a black 'T' outside. The woman at the station kiosk nearly bit my head of when I asked her for stamps. The stamps I got were ugly utalitarian ones, but I really liked the word francobolle so I said it a lot.

We had to carry our bikes down the stairs through the subway to Platform 6 and back up the stairs. A muscly bloke helped Lou up the stairs with hers. Our train was delayed over an hour so we stood watching other people come and go. The was a curious gay American tour group, mostly with fabulous shaved, tanned legs which put mine to shame, although the group as a whole did disprove the 'all gay men are good-looking' theory. When our train finally arrived it came in on Platform 1. We didn't have time to struggle and having quickly got used to braking road laws we just pushed the bikes across the tracks, earning us a 'honk' from our train. I asked the guard if it was 'per Luni?', he checked his list, nodded and helped us get the bikes into the drivers area. Cool.

The trip was quick, despite a few station stops, the drivers and guards were friendly and helpful and the mountains on either side of us were terrifying. My guidebook had promised no mountains.

Luni station was called by the driver who laughed and waved. It was about 20' long with one small sign and some steps down to a dirt track. There did not appear to be a town. We cycled along the track with some houses on either side and every now and then what I guessed to be sangiovese growing as a hedge, but nothing resembling a bar or hotel and it was getting dark.We followed signs to the historic centre, but it was simply a gated community of Roman ruins

We began to panic a tad. We decided to head towards the coast as it seemed like our best chance to get a room. At the first bar we came to after crossing a bridge over the main road I asked a chap "dove un albergo?". He talked to me which really didn't help, but he also gestured and I established that just down the road on the left was a restaurant which was also a hotel. It looked fine so I went in. Reception wasn't manned which wasn't an encouraging sign. I rang the number next to the phone and I woman answered. I said "Inglese?", she said 'yes', but no to a room. We could only rent an apartment and then only for a full week. Boo.

We cycled on and after some confusion about where to go we plumped for the direction with the most signs offering accommodation. I attached a front light to my person, but as I was attracting too much attention I moved it to my shoulder strap.

After a worrying ride into town with ever decreasing accommodation adverts we found a sign and stuck with it. I asked an Italian woman "dove un albergo?". She said she couldn't understand me. Never mind. Then as we cycled on she shouted "Alberrrrrrrrgo!" laughed and pointed behind her.

So here I am at the Stella Del Magra at Fiumaretta di Ameglia near Sarzanna. We locked our bikes up in reception after shuffling some chairs around. Our room has a teeny TV, a reasonable bathroom and a great view of the bay/marina/mountain. This morning I found we had a balcony so that's where I'm writing this. Last night we walked up to O'Neill's Irish Bar, with the same branding you find at home, but it sold only Guinness and three types of Tennants Scotch Ale. At least it had wine. It also sold fabulous home made pizza. We ate and talked about the day and it felt good having packed a lot in and working well without much of a plan. I was a bit worried at Luni when it was getting dark and we didn't know where to go and Lou was texting Frank to talk about his indiscretions but it worked out fine and here I am chilling on the balcony whilst Lou gets ready.

Breakfast is included in our 110E room rate and I intend to eat my money's worth.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Packing list for cycling the road to Rome

This was our proposed packing list for cycling to Rome.

Sports nutrition stuff - I'll report back on whether it works
Antiseptic wipes
Bite cream
Insect repellant
Compede - whilst I shouldn't get blisters while cycling I do when walking and was forced to cycle over the Pyrenees despite being totally unfit for it because I was too blistered to walk.
Tubi-grip - if I need this I'm not cycling any further than a pharmacy anyway, so I left it behind.

Contact lenses
Sun screen factor 40
Toothpaste/brush - will take mostly used up tube
Shampoo/shower gel - may go with just shampoo for hair, body and clothes
Shower shoes - flip flop type things for communal living
Tissues - for use as emergency loo roll
Deodorant - futile, but makes me feel better
Make up - good suggestion, I took lipstick to make me feel human on the camino but it melted and got all over the place. Maybe I'll reintroduce lipgloss in a sealed tube
Earplugs - travelling with a snorer
Sleeping bag - duh! plus liner, which I'll sleep in on its own if it's hot

Cereal bars
Water bottles
Allen key
Cable ties
Inner tubes
Spokes - not sure about these as I don't know how to fit them
Lights - small and light doubling as torch
Puncture kit

Waterproof jacket
PJ's - big t-shirt and big knickers for dormitories
Knickers - cheap Asda thongs, comfy, light, and cheap enough to be disposable
Socks - again, disposable, worth a little extra weight for feeling clean
Cycling shorts - 2 pairs, not padded for me
Bikini top - underwired to double as bra
Vest tops
T-shirt - need something with sleeves to stop burn and for churches
Sarong - for churches, doubles as all purpose large piece of light fabric
Cargo shorts - lots of pockets for off bike time
Shoes - not cleats, sturdy trainers for on/off bike use

Credit/cash card
Pilgrim passport
Driving licence
Flight details
Camera/memory cardcharger/adaptor - cheaper and lighter than disposables I took to Spain
Phone/charger/adaptor - not certain I'll take this
Maps - with unnecssary areas cut off
Compass - will take cheap Tchibo watch with compass alitimeter thermometer. Fancy Lance Armstrong one got knackered on Camino trip. Boo to Tchibo, the watch hasn't arrived.
Guidebook and accommodation book
Phrasebook - I forgot to learn Italian