Left our B&B early for 75 km cycle to Rome. Managed to take a wrong path somewhere and ended up on small rough roads barricaded by fences warning of bulls and dogs. Though a long day we had a ridiculously easy entry into Rome following a red cycle path filled with joggers, rollerbladers and bikers of every style. We had to stop at some kind of antique market bordering the Tiber where a porchetta (sliced pork sandwich) stand was enticing Michael with not so delicate aromas. Our Trastaverre flat was easily accessed from Tiber bike route with steel bike funnels installed on the side of the steep stairwells so bikes were easily pushed up. Met Paola on her scooter and we climbed the four flights to our apartment. A bit shabby and definitely not chic! Trastaverre is a busy spot popular with Romans and tourists alike known for its good restaurants and small shops. “A city within the city”. Off the tourist grid it becomes a real neighbourhood with children’s playgrounds, a market and a specialty tortellini shop with insanely good lemon and ricotta filled ravioli. Our first stop was to sit in a nearby square and sip prosecco in celebration of arrival. Thrilled to find plethora of verdure filling sandwiches and topping bruschetta!
First morning, all set to receive our pellegrini testimonies, we headed towards the Vatican and spoke to some flamboyantly attired Swiss Guards who told us Monday was a holiday (All Soul’s Day) and we’d have to return again. So off to St. Peter’s which was really the church to end all churches on the Francigena. It’s great square, dome, giant proportions all left us awed. Michelangelo’s La Pieta was very moving with vulnerable body of Christ supine along the drapery of powerful Madonna’s lap. Effect of Bernini’s baldachin over high alter, framing radiant gold and dove of window was spectacular as we walked through throngs towards the alter.
The bronze used for this was pilfered from Pantheon giving rise to saying “What the barbarians didn’t do was done by the Barberini”! Loved Bernini’s last work (commissioned when he was 80!) a monument to Alexander VII of skeleton under red drapery with hourglass. Impressed on walk home with the number of young, bicycling, birkenstocked priests proliferating the streets of Roma.
Next day we received our testimoniums for real! Passed through Vatican security and stood in line for our visitor’s badges. After going to several wrong buildings we finally found ourselves in the right one. We showed our well-stamped pellegrini credentials and received some lovely pieces of paper! Perhaps slightly anti-climactic…no papal audience, fanfare or nod of recognition…but we did it!
Went into Vatican museum and marvelled at classical statuary, the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche and the Raphael-frescoed rooms that were once Pope Julius II’s private apartments. All this led strategically to the culminating masterpiece… the Sistine Chapel where we craned our necks for a good 20 minutes while getting chastised by guards not to take photos, not to become too voluble and to move towards the back of the room. Still enjoyed Michelangelo’s Genesis and Last Judgement. And Botticelli’s frescoes of Moses and Christ weren’t bad either! Interesting fact: Michelangelo’s portrayal of God as a muscular figure with long white hair and big white beard is the one many of us imagine, yet this was the first time God had been depicted in this dynamic way. In most earlier paintings God was depicted simply as a hand reaching down through the clouds. Funny fact: in 1500’s Council of Trent demanded prominent nudes be made more decent and an artist Daniele de Volterra was hired to paint underwear on some of the men. He had to forever after live with the nickname Il Braghettone –Big Pants!
A steady but easy day to San Quirico. Attempted to stay in pellegrini lodging within lovely church but ended up costing too much with sheet rental! Pretty and very small town with some secret gardens tucked away.
On our way to Radicofini we passed some thermal baths centred in middle of town. Stopped to watch waters bubbling up and then to a VERY steep and unexpected climb to Radicofini with dark clouds threatening. Through the clouds we managed to find charming old family home of Anna decorated with sparkling crocheted linens in bath and kitchen. Decided to make our own dinner and shopped for green beans, pesto sauce, pears. People very polite and helpful and enjoyed walk under lanterns brightening the fog. Great evening watching history of Roman Empire on computer and sleeping under extra blankets (800 meters high!) as we listened to thunder and lightning throughout the night. Michael bought most delectable cornettos just below our home for breakfast…lightly dusted with sugar, light and crisp with hint of lemon. As good as croissants!
Steep down to an easy riding day to Bolsena on the lake. Stayed in modern hotel outside of town. Lucky to miss rains that arrived as soon as we did.
Another short ride with some steep climbs and strong winds throughout the day. Stopped at Montefiascone which is exactly 100 km from Rome and received great timbro at tourist kiosque for our credenziale! We climbed Pilgrim’s tower for beautiful views then onwards along bumpy and incredible 95 ad Roman roads. Mountain bikes definitely needed!
Stopped at Bagnaccio, a favourite stop of Pope Gregory…baths first mentioned in 300 BC. Located in midst of a farmer’s field we paid 5 euros to bathe a la Italianio lolling along the sloping sides of the sulphurous pools with as much skin exposed as possible to soak up the sun. Seemed popular with camping vans. Arrived in Bolsena which is larger town with great medieval streets winding into darkness. Also known for its Machinna of Santa Rosa, a 30 metre tower rebuilt every year and carried by 100 men through very narrow streets and squares in honour of Santa Rose of Viterbo.
Toured Pope’s Museum in the am and then a 40 km ride to Sutri which required our first shoeless stream crossing. Visited Roman amphitheatre across from our B &B and saw a number of raggaze dressed up in Hallowe’en costumes on their way to parties.
Siena is a city of steep medieval streets surrounding Piazza del Campo that hosts the famous bareback horse races (Palio Festival) during the summer. As Siena was not allowed to build after Florentine defeat in 1500s, it feels frozen in time. Exploring has included treasure hunting the various symbols of the 17 contrade (parishes) whose animals decorate plaques mounted on the sides of buildings.
There are a number of museums where we’ve been feasting on yet more painting and frescoes and sculptures. Shannon has enjoyed work of Simone Martini…very elegant medieval Sienese painter (apparently influenced by French manuscript illumination brought to Siena by the via Francigena). We are constantly surprised how everything seems to originate with this pilgrim route we’re on…town infrastructure, growth, wealth, trade and spread of knowledge begin with via Francigena.
The Duomo was a beautiful church and a surprise! The black and white colours of Siena zig zag up the columns so that every inch is ornate, exotic and rippling with energy. Apparently we were lucky to see all the scenes of the inlaid marble floor as the floors around the altar are covered for mass service most of the year. Floor scenes include biblical scenes like Slaughter of Innocents to astrology and alchemy. Stunning.
Enjoyed the frescoed ceiling of our B&B room…fell asleep to rabbits and pheasants hanging from rafters. We spent a few days on walking tours around the city, visiting museums and eating in various shops and restaurants. Across from Duomo was Santa Maria della Scalla, the first hospital for pilgrims (who must have arrived needing medical care!) which contained a large and strange museum. In its bowels was a scary little chapel with skulls and skeletons and now covered streets that were once open to the sky. Of note were the murals that depicted secular scenes of medieval life showing certain merciful actions of the hospital such as the care of foundling children and bread given to poor (and pilgrims).
Left Aulla after visiting Abbazia museum next to church with treasures and some history of pellegrini themselves (dress and devotional practices). Started 80 km cycle to Lucca through Appian Mountains. Giant climb up through some lovely rural views over landscapes. Towards summit came to medieval town where a woman asked us if we wanted to take a tour of her museum. Her deceased husband had been an artist and she keeps his gallery going, full of tools, sculptures, paintings.
One gorgeous moment with Carrara marble mines behind a medieval town. Did stop in Carrara and saw church with its white marble facade and neighbouring house where Michelangelo stayed to choose his marbles.
Shannon with a virus so trained final portion of ride into Lucca–fantastic city of wide piazzas (filled with pop-up white tents for upcoming comics and games festival) and narrow streets. We think this is the most beautiful town we’ve seen so far with specialty food shops and variety of churches surrounded by medieval walls all intact for long walks around the city.
In the morning we walked to the top of the main tower for views over city and then visited the main cathedral and museum which housed religious treasures including the golden dress, slippers, earrings and crown that adorn the wooden Christ during processions.
A very Tuscan bike ride to San Miniato where we stayed at Misericordia
organization for a Pelerin stop, though not in the alta old town. Just down the street was a fantastic small restaurant attached to the butcher shop. Steaks that sliced like butter and great lashings of spinach drizzled with olive oil. Michael also had a platter of incredible salumi and pecorino. He is in pecorino heaven! Dinner made up for free lodging that had no hot water, heating, or fresh linens. A deaf woman very kindly gave us very nice pellegrini papers from their organization.
Another beautiful Tuscan ride of 50 km with lots of hills to San Gimignano, the well preserved “city of beautiful towers” that bristles with 14 of the original 76 towers of the 13th century. Very striking! Highlight was the Collegiate church, one of the most frescoed of Italy. With an audio guide we followed old and New Testament scenes that cover 3 levels and the lovely tiny Santa Fina chapel that tells the story of young Saint who fell ill at 10 and chose to lie on a wooden board visited by mice and worms as her head grew gangrenous. Upon her death violets sprouted from the board which still blossom on the walls and towers of the town of her feast day.
After much needed laundry we enjoyed meal where we tasted bitter olio nuvo that Tuscany did not enjoy last year due to a poor olive crop and shared gelato after walk of town. Lucky to have nearly deserted streets…apparently police keep tourist cues moving one way through the town during summer months!
Loved busy Pavia teeming with students. Would have stayed another night if our Airbnb had not been rented.
70 km onwards to piacenza, a nice day riding along raised dykes as opposed to trafficky roads to Pavia.
Piacenza more of a quiet “art town” of the Po River, but very elegant (some women exquisitely dressed) and filled with brick churches and volleys of bells on Sunday morning. Though known for its food, we could not find a single restaurant that would take us without reservations! Did see an Italian art museum that had a good collection. One interesting political painting had been torn apart after WW2 –a family assembled in their home listening to Mussolini on the radio–so only a fragment left of what was once a giant propaganda canvas.
50 km cycle to Fidenza on Sunday in the drizzle. One highlight was passing through a little town that was celebrating St Firenze and we tried delicious steamed ham in light crispy batter bread with Guturnio, the local red frizzante wine. Simple pleasures! Fidenza a sleepy town where everyone carried an umbrella. Had a bar night of limoncello, aperol, reds.
Cycled 3o km towards Pontremoli and then took short train ride to arrive earlier so we could spend more time in the town. A gorgeous Duomo in the old town! Gold sculpture and ornate chandeliers offset by a pearly green paint rising into the dome of cathedral. Had a great cheap stay in B&B (35E) and a good dinner out where we had local specialty of testacoli (flat breadlike pasta coated in pesto) and a decent lamb and steak. But not a veggie in sight!
In the AM we saw a museum of the stele, ancient and mysterious stones of human figures, both naked and armed, depending on gender. Tombstones…land division markers…but most eerie and wonderful to see this bit of pre-history from Luniguana or northern Tuscany.
Cycled without any plans through Tuscan hillsides confounding locals who wondered why we were up so high wandering around castellis and churches that are closed up (for the winter? Forever?). Bought great picnic goodies including a herb torte which is a specialty of region. Ambled into Aulla which was once a lovely town on pellegrini route but now choked with traffic. Tried to find pellegrini lodging at abbey but no answer on telephone. Had first knock your socks off pizza by a pizza maestro in town whose pizzeria walls were festooned with awards. He also handed us some farinata made in a giant pizza pan. Like polenta only thinner and creamier…delicious and cheap.
The Aosta Valley is quite narrow, set between sheer striated rocky mountains and studded with chateaux. Fun to ride from one little town to the next. Arrived at Verres a small town with winding streets and stayed at a B&B where our lack of Italiano is becoming painful. Ate some pasta in town. Porcini farfalle (porcini a in season but seem to be slightly different then cepes of France) and pumpkin ravioli. Exquisite chocolate cake in a small pond of sweet cream carried box tops over our heads in a sudden deluge.
Cycle to Viverone a beautiful one. Weather gorgeous. Stopped at small town of Bard with its large fortress occupied by Hapsburgs in 19th century that Bonaparte came to capture.
Lovely art exhibition of Italian painters well worth the steep cycle up.
Arrived at Viverone Lake which is in a 60s time warp. Walked along lake in gloom to find recommended Pescatore but, alas and of course, closed on Wednesday. Found a bar and drank incredible wine with pickles and chips for dinner. B&B had no wifi, no heat, no hot water but suitably so somehow. Morning rain and cycled off to Vercelli, a smallish town still in Piemonte. Via Francigena popping up in signage more and more–Sigeric the Serious attaining a Disneyfied cult status at times!
Vercelli had a Duomo museum full of lithurgical treasures. We are now familiar with the portable accoutrements of travelling bishops from ordination scissors to crosiers!
Had the most ambrosial gelato known to mortals and bought marrons glacés for someone special. Dinner underwhelming but it can’t all be perfect. Great sheets of rain all night long with lightning and thunder. Woke to bright blue skies and cycled on flat highway (72 km) as Italy lacks ancillary routes that abound in France. Arrived in Pavia, a great middle-sized town between Milan and Turin, which is fashionable, full o fun bars/spots to eat and stores but best of all a large Airbnb flat to ourselves where we made a giant salad and pasta. Pavia has one of oldest universities in Italy founded in 1361 –we were able to enter its courtyard and mingle with students and marble busts and elegant stairways–lucky students!
Climbed 1400 metres from Martigny to Bourg. Biggest climb day and our legs were burning at end. A car that was rigged out for a Red Bull promotion stopped to offer us “energie”!
Had our credentials stamped in Orsieres by a friendly young cycling priest who invited us to stay in his pilgrim hospice! At first Bourg seemed like a highway stop but as we walked through town we enjoyed scenery and history that has seen crossings of Roman legions, religious orders and 45000 soldiers of Napoleon over its bridges and pathways. There were alpine gardens and a reconstructed moulin at the end of town along with a church with heaters below the pews. Also, somewhat surprisingly for a deserted small town, a heated pool where families were cavorting away from the alpine night.
So lucky to have an icy cold cloudless morning for our final climb to Col du Grand St. Bernard. 1600 meters to 2500 meters in 13 km. A bit unpleasant at start as we were locked into an open sided tunnel but once road forked towards the Col we had gorgeous vistas for a slow steep 6 km. Shannon had to push bike at steeper grades and Michael pushed to keep company.
Arrived at Col which was more touristy than imagined. As Pelerins we were invited to sip sweet tea with the priests who asked as about our journey and told us to check out the crypt below which reminded us of a chill Star Trek set on planet Vulcan (perhaps to off set the fierce depiction of St. Bernard stamping on a Devil’s head in the church above. J Decided to forego St. Bernard dog kennels and museum as we had a 2000 meter chilly descent into Italy. Brakes on whole way down. Aosta a pretty mountain town. Struggled all day to find wifi as Airbnb router not working. Ate 1 euro pizza slices and 12 euro (!) tortelli Herbetta and enjoyed Romanesque cloister and Roman ruins. Finally got wifi in library. No English francigena books or maps to be found.