Monday, September 30, 2013

Terracina to Gaeta: time on the coast

 We have been enjoying the small cities on the sea as we cycle down the coast south of Rome.  Gaeta is so appealing that we have stayed an extra night.  The decision was easy to make because we are also staying in a particularly outstanding B&B.  We may be the last cyclists accepted here however, as the owners lost money when we fell upon the excellent breakfast.

We are staying high up in the old portion of the city, a maze of stairs and passage ways, many covered.  Close by is the bell tower of the cathedral, which has been beautifully restored.  It dates to the 10th century and is constructed in a style described as Arab-Norman.  The Moorish influence is quite clear.

Incongruous with this medieval setting, we awoke to the sound of the Star-Spangled Banner.  This is because Gaeta is the base for NATO (read U. S.) naval forces in the Mediterranean.  The music emanated from the American flagship Mount Whitney moored in the harbour.  Our host assures us that we will have the opportunity to hear the anthem again tomorrow morning at the same time.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Still Pilgrims: Rome to Velletri on the Appian Way

We are pilgrims again! But first may I take a moment to apologize to all cyclists for my suggestion that to be a mere biker is somehow less worthy.  I have always held in high regard all people who move through the world on two self propelled wheels.  I also think smears of bike grease on the back of the calves when dining out are particularly sexy. 

For some crazy reason however, Gord and I just love being pilgrims. For us there is nothing better than finding an ancient route to follow. 

Yesterday we were casting about for a route for the next leg of our travels.  We dropped into a bookstore and found an Italian guide book for the Via Francigena Nel Sud. This is a 700 km continuation of the Via Francigena used by pilgrims to Jerusalem.  It largely follows the Appian Way from Rome to Brindisi.  We bought the book and and this morning headed out of Rome on the Appian Way, allegedly the first paved long distance road in the Western World. This road is just lined with Roman ruins and bits of history everywhere.  Some of the original flagstone paving remains.  It is very picturesque, but 2300 years of use have left their mark and the surface is essentially unrideable.  We contented ourselves with taking pictures and riding on a dirt track beside the Appian Way.

Our first pilgrim stop was at the Catacombs of Saint Callisto. Here we were treated to a fantastic tour of the first Christian cemetery, with tombs and frescoes dating back to the the early third century. I studied these early examples of Christian art in university so it was thrilling to see them first hand. Included in the tour was the earliest depiction of the cross as a Christian symbol. 

We get to be pilgrims now for another two weeks!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Saint Peter's Square: Lunch with the Pope.

Today we went to St. Peter's Square,  the final destination of the Via Francigena and the end of our 2800 km pilgrimage to 
to Rome. It's Wednesday, which means we were not alone. We joined at least 10,000 others keen on catching a glimpse of the Pope.

Wednesday is when he holds his weekly public audience. The adoring crowds treated him like a rock star. You could tell when the Pope was in our vicinity in the square because hundreds of cameras and iPads shot up into the air.

We were pleased to get our Testimoniums (the certificate granted for completing the pilgrimage). Contrary to what we had heard, they were easily obtained just outside St. Peter's square at the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, Piazza Pio XII no. 9. We will save our visit to St. Peter's and the Vatican museums for another day when the crowds are a bit lighter.

I will miss the identity of being a pilgrim and the special privileges  and unique community that comes with it. I remember feeling the same way when I finished my masters degree. It was one thing to be a grad student who worked part time, and quite another to be an over-educated, underemployed member of the plebs. I guess I am just a cyclist now. Still, a very, very fortunate one who has been permanently changed by the experiences of following an ancient pilgrimage route.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cycling Into Rome from Sutri: Cyclists Fear Not the Road to Rome!

Cyclists have no fear there is a calm and beautiful way into Rome on Bicycle! 
Gord and made it from Innsbruck to Rome in just over 1800 kms!

If you are a cyclist on the Via Francigena, or just cycling into Rome from the North or East,  it is worth a few more kilometres and hills to go in on the Euro Velo 5.  Gord and I were both apprehensive about cycling into Rome, but we had a wonderful ride in that surprised us both. Here is my summary of our route in case someone else is looking for a calm way in. 

We started this morning in Fontevivola near Sutri. We headed NE on the SP82 and then quickly turned down the SP1 which merges into the Via Cassia or SR2. We stayed on the Via Casia just until Monterosi and took the exit for Campagnano.  The road climbs up to a ridge but it is worth the rewards of the long coast into the outskirts of Rome.  From Campagnano head for Sacrofano where you will join the Euro Velo 5. The climbing is over just after Sacrofano on the road to Prima Porta where the Euro Velo route takes you safely around the freeway and down to the river. The rest of the route simply follows the river into the heart of Rome.
Wonderful ride!

Enjoying the Trevi Fountain with 700 plus others.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tarquinia: A Pagan Side Trip to See the Etruscan Tombs

Gordon:  We left the Via Francigena for a couple of days to visit the UNESCO world heritage site at Tarquinia.  This was an important Etruscan city and it has received it's UNESCO designation for the tombs that they left.  What a treasure trove.  Hundreds of tombs have been found in the area, and many have wall frescos.

A number of the tombs can be visited in an open air museum at the edge of town.  From the road, the site appears to be a number of sheds scattered randomly over the landscape.  However, each of these sheds covers a staircase that goes several meters underground to a chamber cut from the soft stone.  The tombs date from the 7th to the 1st centuries B.C., and the frescos reflect the evolving ideas of the Etruscan afterlife during this period.  The art is reminiscent of Minoan paintings that we have seen, and it was a great pleasure to be able to see them.  The experience was enhanced by the fact that we were the only tourists on the site during our entire visit.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Val D'Orcia: Hill Towns of Tuscany

 After leaving Sienna we have spent the last two days exploring the Val d' Orcia with its marvellous hill towns.
The valley was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site as "an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture. In other words it was a landscape manufactured for tourism. Since the Renaissance, it has been a popular subject for painters and travellers. And who are we to disagree. The hill towns in this area are charming and well worth the climb necessary to reach each one. We enjoyed the area so much that we slowed down and did some detours to visit more of the towns. This allowed us to also spend two nights with the same group of walking pilgrims. Now that we are getting closer to Rome there are about a dozen pilgrims at the hostels each night.

Rocca D' Orcia

Quirico D'Orcia


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Siena: Rest and Repair

There has been a rivalry between Florence and Siena for hundreds of years and it continues today, with many tourists weighing in with strong feelings about their preference. Gord and I are not going to visit Florence on this trip, but we are very impressed with Siena. We have always leaned towards the Gothic over the Renaissance and Siena is a gothic gem.

 We are staying in a small apartment only two blocks away from Il Campo, the main square, and yet we are tucked away in a residential area without the tourist hoards a stones throw away.  It appears that the contrada in our area is Tower, as we have a meeting hall across the street that is dedicated to that group.  The city is divided into 17 contrada, which date back to the medieval period when they were involved in raising troops.  The contrade continue to dominate social life in the city, as we have been told that most important social rituals, such as marriages and baptisms, occur within one's contrada.  Competition between the contrade is played out each summer with two horse races around Il Campo.  These are not merely recreational events, but are of considerable importance to the contrade.  By the way, our guide states that Tower is the only contrada to have two enemy contrade, making it the most contentious contrada in the city.  No wonder our room was so reasonably priced: we're staying in a bad 'hood.

We spent our day exploring the Duomo and a number of museums located within the Cathedral area.  The Duomo not only houses exceptional paintings and sculptures by leading artists, including Bellini and Donatello, but also the most amazing inlaid stone floor.

Perhaps the best sight of all, however, was my new rack. The back rack on my bicycle had broken in a number of places and no amount of bondo, zap-straps and hose clamps were making it withstand the off road riding that we have been doing. I was so happy when we found a  repair shop that said they could set me up with a new rack that I did my happy dance right in the store, much to the amusement of the elderly lady manning the till.  Speaking of racks, my other set is now settling into a new smaller sized bra.  It seems that with all the fat on my body that I would happily sacrifice, I just lose in one area.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

San Gimignano: Mine's Bigger than Your's

Ruth: After a long and tough day of climbing we made it to San Gimignano. Each day we normally plan our route and choose between the Euro Velo 5, the Via Francigena or the route suggested by my map app pocket earth. Today we did a bit of everything from rough single track mountain biking to long steep climbs on the the wrong road. We ended up climbing much higher than necessary; in our defence it looked flat on the map.

San Gimignano  is a UNESCO world heritage site for it's well preserved medieval core containing 14 of the original 72 house towers.  It sits on a hill and is surrounded by the classic Tuscan vistas.  It is also, according to my sister Sheila, the most touristy town in Tuscany and I believe it.  We are fortunate to be staying in the San Girolamo monastery/ retirement home/ daycare, located within the medieval city walls. This insulates us somewhat from the hoards, although it is listed in the Lonely Planet guide, so they take non-pilgrims as well.  Work hours must be different here because the daycare operates until eight o'clock in the evening.

The tower houses of Tuscan towns had little to do with fortification and much to do with testosterone. Imagine the supper conversations in the wealthy homes in San Gimignano, when the wife suggests it's time for new armour for junior, and and her husband replies, "but I want a big one!" In the days before Maseratis and Ferraris, rich men showed off their wealth by building ever taller houses. In this town the tallest were over 50 meters. 

To enjoy the town my testosterone poisoned travelling partner, oh, and husband, had to climb up to the tallest point of land so he could gaze wistfully at the legacy of greater men.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Lucca: Ode to the Bicycle

 Ruth:  We are spending two nights in Lucca to enjoy the sights and sounds of this marvellous place. Last night it was Opera (this is the home town of Puccini) and tonight it is the Santa Croce Festival where the whole town is lit up with candles as the cross is paraded through town. Not just any cross, however, this one is believed to have been carved by someone who witnessed the crucifixion. No amount of modern technology and carbon dating indicating the real date is somewhere in the thirteenth century, can ruin this town's party.

Lucca may be famous for many things, but it really is the city of the bicycle.
Whether you are exploring the city walls, parading down the Main Street,  bicycles are everywhere. They also seem to be the most favourite accessory in window displays whether it is for 
 designer glasses, cookware or lingerie. I particularly enjoyed a display of astonishingly bright men's underwear on a shiny bicycle.

And why not revere the Bicycle like Lucca does?
The bicycle is perhaps one of the cleverest inventions on earth.
Well I suppose I should briefly give some credit to the parent invention of the wheel,
But this kid certainly took off  beyond the aspirations of his parents.

Gord and I have now peddled these beautiful machines over 1300 kms of varying landscapes and I am still in awe of their efficiency and the simple pleasures they deliver.
Only half a horse power is added to make mine fly- at least downhill.
Unlike a horse mine only requires a bit of oil now and then and it doesn't even need to be extra virgin.
Tomorrow we saddle up our steel steeds and head down the road towards Rome.
Today's gelato flavours: Chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, and coffee.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Aulla to Pietrasanta: Beach time in Italy

While I do not share her enthusiasm for vast expanses of tedious sand, Ruth loves a beach.  So it was with some excitement that Ruth approached the coast near Massa to find ... that someone owns the beach.  We cycled for a number of kilometres along the coast, looking at an almost continuous wall of restaurants, bars, change rooms and parking areas.  Occasionally we would catch a glimpse of the sea.

Italians are apparently wild about beach holidays, but these look much different than they do in North America.  To begin with, almost the entire beach is privately owned through concessions.  We stopped to look at a map of a section of the coast and found that it looks like a subdivision, with "lots" extending from the oceanfront road to the water.  These are labelled with the name of the restaurant or other operator that holds the concession.  Typically a concession holder has a bar or restaurant backing onto the road, and then beyond that there is an expanse of beach extending to the sea that is completely occupied by pre-erected beach recliners and umbrellas.  You can enjoy these amenities, but you must pay for the privilege.  I have heard that it can cost $20 per day to lay in a recliner.

But surely there must be some public beaches?  Yes, there are.  The less desirable portions of the coast appear to have unrestricted public access.  And the public can use the more pleasant beaches, but only in a limited way.  There were public beach access corridors every half-kilometre or so.  These tend to be very narrow, perhaps as little as 10 metres, and on the beach the private operators tend to encroach on even this sliver of the beach.  In addition, the public can walk along the beach within 10 metres of the sea, under the watchful eyes of the concession holders.

I understand that public access to the beach is a political issue in Italy, and the subject of some activism.  And of course private ownership is rampant in North America.  I myself own some land behind a beach.  However, our experience by the sea today left us a little less excited about being on the beach.  That's fine for me, but I am afraid Ruth suffered a real letdown.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Casio to Aulla: over the Pass and Into Tuscany.

Ruth: Ah, we are entering in Tuscany where almost all the Italian Movies we have ever watched were filmed. A land that is always bathed in the pre sunset light, and where everyone owns a villa. Then why are my hands and feet numb and why can't I see the road. We had our mountain road to ourselves as we climbed up and over the Cisa pass except for one or two motorcycles making the cold wet journey into the clouds. By the way, being in a cloud in not at all like the Philadelphia cream cheese ads.

We are now safely nestled into our pilgrim hostel that we are sharing with 11 other pilgrims! We did not see this many pilgrims on our whole trip last year. We dined well at a local restaurant that offered a pilgrim dinner and now I am ready for a good rest.

I am actually glad there has been some rain so Tuscany of the films will be lush and glistening.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Fedenza to Casio: Out of the rice paddies and into the Mountains

53km and 850 meters of climbing ( for those in Victoria that's 2.5 Malahats )

Gord: Today we left the rice paddies of the Po valley  and climbed into the Appennine mountains towards Tuscany.  Like the meseta on the Camino many pilgrims skip the Po valley.  While I am glad that we are covering the entire Via Francigena under our own steam, and there were interesting and memorable aspects to the Po valley, we are very pleased to move onto the next region on the route.  The villages already have a different look, huddling on ridges and nestling in valley bottoms.  The building material of choice has also changed to stone from the brick of the Po valley.  The villages also seem more ancient, perhaps because they did not suffer as much damage during the Second World War.

Ruth: We are staying in a hostel in Casio that is a pilgrim's dream. The Ostello Via Francigena charges only 16€ per person for a room that is more like a B&B then a hostel, but wait... that's not all. This place is not only equipped, it is overflowing with wine, beer, every food item possible (there is even a pineapple in the fridge!!!) All of this is available for a donation. We are the only people staying here and we have the run of the entire three story house. Pictures describe it better than words.





Sunday, September 8, 2013

Piacenza to Fidenza: Signs Showing us the Way

I think we might actually make it to Rome. The signs are certainly indicating that we are going the right way. Perhaps the oldest surviving road sign, however is the on on the Cathedral in Fidenza. A statue of Simon Peter faces Rome holding an inscription that says, "Here lies the way to Rome."

We are staying at the Cappuccini Monastery in Fidenza, each of us with our own separate cell. We are the only pilgrims here right now but there were 7 the previous night.

Ice cream flavors today: rocky road, coffee and cream, sunflower, and two other lovely mysteries.