Italy: to Rome

26/11/18 – 12/12/18
Distance travelled 4880km 

As the guys turned left, we turned right and onwards to Rome. I tried not to dwell on the goodbye or think too much about when our paths would next cross… Writing from Tapawera on New Zealand’s South Island, this leg of our adventure feels like a long time ago. However, the more time passes, the more fondly each day is remembered. From Monteverdi Marittimo to Rome we almost exclusively followed the Via Francigena, a pilgrim route which translates to ‘French Way’ that stretches from Canterbury in England to Rome and crosses the Alps at the Great St Bernard Pass. In hindsight, we wish we’d bought the ‘Pilgrims’ Passport’ so that we could get it stamped as we weaved our way south passing through picturesque small towns and villages that formed important stops on Archbishop Sigeric’s route home from visiting the Pope in AD990. Although not religious, and although we ultimately followed the Via Francigena because it was a failsafe way to get to ‘The Eternal City’, the route to Rome, spotting the red and white stripes and the carvings of the, often yellow, pilgrim etched into wooden signs and rocks, became kind of spiritual. (Not least as we tried to evade becoming spirits ourselves as we fought, as we continue to do here, for our spot on the road!) I say ‘spiritual’ because we carefully followed the route and, as is impossible to do otherwise when cycle touring, we fully experienced it. It was impossible not to be impressed by the hilltop towns and the beautiful churches in them, and we talked and reflected as we pedalled – discussing the route, the trip, ‘life’… We benefitted greatly from hospitality in pilgrim accommodation along the way too and I was perhaps at my most spiritual when in conversation with Sister Marie Claire at the monastery and convent in Montefiascone. Sister Marie Claire was French and so I was able to natter away to her, and she seemed keen to natter back to find out who we were and what we were up to. I told her we had left our jobs to embark upon an adventure, to see more of the world and to learn a little more about ourselves along the way. She said this was the perfect definition of a pilgrimage: to connect.

The day we turned right it rained. A lot. As we were packing away that morning, Marc opened his wallet and handed me all of his remaining Euros. He said Hannah owed him anyway! Marc said wild camping, which had been our plan that night, wouldn’t be much fun after the four days we had just had. He told us to put it towards an Airbnb or equivalent. That night we had our first (and only, to date) hotel stay of the trip! Four stars! Soaking wet we cycled through the small town of Casole d’Elsa; we had been too slow to secure a booking on the only reasonably priced Airbnb place there and at five o’clock, with no accommodation plans to speak of, I was starting to experience my usual bout of nerves. At a bar, where Olly had downed an espresso as I attempted to dry out my waterproof a little, we had been pointed in the direction of the local hotel. Olly checked online: 70€ a night. We’d have to see when we got there. As we approached the hotel we felt so out of place! Squelchy and dripping we waddled into the hotel desperately trying not to leave puddles on the cream (obviously) carpet. We were smiled in and greeted warmly, despite the stream that was forming in our wake, but when we enquired about the room we were told, ‘it’s 70€’. I shook my head at Olly, we couldn’t justify that, much as I wanted to roll around on the aforementioned cream carpet because it looked so inviting and I couldn’t actually remember when I’d last felt carpet beneath my feet. It looked like it would feel like home! The lady said she’d talk to her manager about trying to get us a discount and she came back and offered us the room with a 10€ reduction. It was still far too much. We said thank you and goodbye and squelched back outside into the rain. We hurriedly made plans to try wild-camping at the stadium we’d seen indicated on several road signs. As we nodded at each other in resignation, the manager of the hotel came out, impeccably dressed in an understated grey suit but not bothered at all, it seemed, by the rain, and asked us how much we could afford. Marc had thrust 40€ into my hand and so that was how much we had. ‘40€ and breakfast?’ she exclaimed, just a little perturbed. ‘No, no’, we said apologetically, ‘we can sort our own breakfast’. She smiled a big smile and told us to ‘come in, there’s bike storage downstairs’. Once we had settled into our wonderful, warm, carpeted room, having showered (using complimentary extra virgin olive oil shower gel) and dried (using a big, fluffy towel), I started to cry as I looked at the mini-MOJ. My face couldn’t catch a break that day! ‘Thank you’ just doesn't seem to cut it. We couldn’t believe where we were and how lucky we’d been. Cheers, mon, init. 

The next day, refreshed and reinvigorated, we set out for Siena. We had a Warm Showers stay lined up and we were excited to visit the city as Marta had told us how much she loved it several times! We had planned to stay for one night and we ended up staying for three! Huge thanks to Cathy and Philippe for having us in their wonderful apartment. I felt so relaxed sitting in their kitchen, eating honey on toast and sipping Yorkshire tea (not only did I have my own healthy stash, Cathy is from Sheffield) as winter sunlight filtered through the doors that led to their little balcony. Philippe invited us to extend our stay in exchange for passing on the recipes we had learned (and gushed about) from Carlo. 

We loved Siena, smaller than, and old enemy of Florence. We became fascinated by the legendary tales of the seventeen ‘contrade’ that exist in the city. The medieval city centre is divided up into seventeen districts, each represented by a symbol (often an animal) that local residents are fiercely patriotic towards, especially during the Palio, a bareback horse race that takes place twice a year in the Piazza del Campo. Ten of the seventeen contrade are selected by ballot to complete three laps of the Campo and the widely anticipated event is often over in 90 seconds! Paul, Cathy and Philippe’s young son, was wholeheartedly ‘Drago’ (dragon), and he regaled us with the contrada’s song and showed us the banner that he has pinned up in his room. Olly decided he would be ‘Istrice’ (porcupine), leaving me, it was decided, to be Chiocciola (snail), which is the contrada that has gone the longest without winning the Palio. We had a great time walking around the city, wandering from contrada to contrada and taking pictures of the crests high up on the walls. Each contrada has enemies and allies (‘Drago’, Paul told me, is the only contrada without any enemies) and its own colours too. It was really captivating. (If you look at Siena on Google Maps the different contrade are visibile.) 

Civetta (little owl) 
Giraffa (giraffe)

Lupa (she-wolf)

Bruco (caterpillar)

Where Aquila (eagle) and Selva (forest) meet

Each contrada has its own fountain, here is the Tartuca fountain
Tartuca (tortoise) was the last to win the Palio and so their district is decorated with the contrada's colours.

Siena felt much more discoverable for us with our limited time than Florence did. It is a city easy navigable on foot and the Piazza del Campo and Piazza del Duomo were both spectacular to sit and stare at for a while. The Campo is really special: it is shell-shaped and has nine fan-shaped sections coming from the centre, each was laid by one of the nine governors of the city. Philippe walked us around the city centre on our first morning in Siena and took us to a park with a wonderful view out over the hills. The park is also behind Siena’s music school and so our gazing was accompanied by beautiful piano music that drifted out of the open windows due to it being a warm, blue-skied autumnal day.

Piazza del Campo

The Duomo

Legend has it that Siena was founded by Senius, the son of Remus, who, along with Romulus, was raised by a wolf.

Olly in the sunlight on the steps behind the Duomo.
Spectacular views from the little park behind the music school
The music school
An autumnal kaki tree

We later sampled two of Seina’s traditional pastries to curb our appetites: cavallucci, an orange and anise flavoured, dense biscuit, and ricciarelli, which I preferred, an almond flavoured biscuit. We also had a wonderful time wandering around the Orto dei Pecci and along the Fortezza Medicea as the sunset over the city having earlier gobbled up a slice of pizza from the Consortium. It was a shame, then, to learn that the people of Siena had elected a far-right member of parliament and that locals aren’t often so welcoming of visitors. 

In the Orto dei Pecci, the wildlife park 

A bite to eat in the market place

Our second bonus day was largely dedicated to planning and organisation and so we were soon back on the bikes and heading further south. From Siena we cycled to Montepulciano. We stayed with Giorgio and his wife, Neda, that night and Giorgio came to rescue us from the dark, drizzle and looming hill that leads to the hill-top town. We had cycled 75km and climbed 1000m and were quite exhausted by the time we bundled into Giorgio’s car. Neda had prepared a wonderful meal and we had the leftover dessert for breakfast: a delicious, honied-orange crostata. I do think it was the sweetest breakfast I have ever had! But it fuelled us back up the hill to Montepulciano and onwards to Radicofani (pronounced rad-ik-off-ani and not ra-dik-o-fani, Olly). 

Leaving Siena

Radicofani sits atop another hill and just before we entered the town walls we leapt off our bikes as a pack of five dogs trotted towards us. We couldn’t believe it: two, big sheepdogs and three black dogs too and not a shepherd or a sheep in sight! We had climbed significantly to reach the point we were at and so turning around wasn’t an option, especially as the light was starting to fade too. We stood motionless, adopting a ‘let’s not look them in the eye and maybe they won’t see us’ approach. Fortunately, they passed us by as we slowly rolled our bikes towards the town. In Radicofani we spent our first night in pilgrims’ accommodation: a small hostel next to the church. We had to call the number on the door, an instruction known by all locals and passed on to pilgrims via word of mouth, and were let in by a man in a beanie hat that sat on top of his head and so I’m sure wasn’t keeping him warm who quickly spoke both Italian and French. We wound up a spiral staircase and into the hostel which was spacious and warm. We were the only two pilgrims there and so we made dinner and sat at one end of the long, banqueting table, slightly bemused by our surroundings and wondering if there was something more to come. There wasn’t! We bid goodnight to the picture of the pope on the wall and went to bed. 

A scenic lunch spot

The pilgrims' hostel - the little building I'm stood next to

Instructions on the door

The next day we continued along the Via Francigena to Montefiascone. As we emerged from the hostel we realised we were above the clouds and the views of the landscape were spectacular. Remembering it now is prompting a real pang of nostalgia! It didn’t get especially light that day, as it doesn’t sometimes in early winter. It wasn’t miserable by any means; the smell of bonfires hung in the air all day too. The day started with a great descent and by the time we reached the bottom of the hill that Radicofani sits atop we had clocked up 10km. We pedalled quickly along the main road and stopped for a coffee and wafer in the churchyard of the first small village we came to. It was a Sunday and there seemed to be a lot less traffic on the roads and so we continued along to San Lorenzo Nuovo for lunch in the town square there which afforded great views over Lake Bolsena. I remember we were deep in the throes of one of our many political discussions as we feasted on leftovers from the night before (a curry containing far too much paprika, we had confused it for curry powder). Down to the lake and up again to the monastery at Montefiascone where we were due to stay that night, our second stay in pilgrim accommodation. Montefiascone was immediately atmospheric as a thick mist clung to the town walls. We entered through the city gates and walked and bumped our bikes along the cobblestones to the plain looking building that pertained to be the monastery.


Above the clouds

We saw no other option than to open the big front door and did so tentatively. Fortunately, it opened onto a porch and there was an intercom on the wall. Olly pressed it nervously and then beckoned me over as a voice started to sound through it. We explained we were pilgrims seeking accommodation and the door opened soon after. We were shown around to a smaller door further along the wall and there we sneaked through and into a big courtyard. Plain from the front, but vast and modern inside. There was an ash tray and lighter placed on a little table, which were used by one nun the following morning and Olly chatted with her as he made coffee, and there was open Wi-Fi too. I don’t know why I found these facts surprising, but I did. Sister Marie Claire appeared in the courtyard as we started to unpack and she hurriedly showed us to the pilgrim accommodation as we had arrived at the hour of evening prayer. The pilgrim quarters were huge and we were again the only two. There was enough room for 64 pilgrims and our dormitory had six beds in. Olly noticed a loose floor tile and he said he betted there was a secret note underneath it… We waited until the following morning to find out! Sister Marie Claire came up to see us after compline and we chatted away happily for a while. Olly then wrapped himself up and headed downstairs into the courtyard to cook dinner. I went down to assist with chopping and just as we finished cooking Sister Marie Claire appeared. She poked her head out of the door and disappeared again. I started to carry stuff back upstairs and met Olly on my way back down. He was carrying a tray covered in silver foil and said there was another one on its way: Sister Marie Claire was bringing us dinner! We packed our pasta into a container and enjoyed our monastery meal. Grand silence started at 8.30 and so we whispered until bedtime, unsure whether we were expected at mass the following morning.

Dinner from Sister Marie Claire

A secret note hidden under a loose floor tile addressed to pilgrims

We left the monastery, emerging from the courtyard into the real world. The weather was still damp and drizzly as we left through the opposite city gate and re-joined the Via Francigena. We made it to Viterbo, which felt busy and claustrophobic after a few days in the countryside, and the religious hotel, our third night in pilgrim accommodation. The hotel was quite different to the previous two nights as it was evidently a business. A monk in robes and flip flops who was waiting for an Amazon delivery pointed us in the right direction as we carted our panniers into the lift and found our room on the second floor. We had bunk beds and a kitchen in a wardrobe!

I was quite relieved to leave the hotel the next morning, I’d found it eerily empty despite hearing voices and opening and closing doors, and we had an Airbnb reserved for the evening: a tower in Capranica right on the Via Francigena. That night in the tower, after a nice day of cycling, we watched ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ in order to properly start our preparations for New Zealand! The tower was quirky and cool, but also trapped the cold and you couldn’t have the cooker and the lights on at the same time without blowing a fuse! The next day we set off in the sunshine to Formello, a town with Rome very much in its sights. We were grateful for increased sections of off-road cycling on the Via Francigena. You can get a special certificate for cycling the final 200km to Rome (or walking the final 100km) and it was evident that efforts had been made to make this a pleasant ride. In Formello we stayed in our final pilgrim accommodation, another hostel housed within a magnificent building attached to the church. None of hostels we stayed in in Italy had cooking facilities and so we wrapped up warm and headed into the courtyard to make some pasta much to the confusion of the guy running the hostel who had told us all of the best restaurants to go to in the area – and many did offer a discount for pilgrims. Initially I felt a bit awkward about rebuffing such recommendations so evidently (it doesn’t get much more blatant that squatting in a courtyard stirring pasta cooking on a camp stove), but we are travelling on a budget! This price for the hostel in Formello did, however, include breakfast in the cafĂ© opposite which was a treat. We had hot drinks and pastries before setting off for the capital.

Through a national park to Formello

The view from the hostel at Formello

The route to Rome was great once we reached the cycle highway, an example of Italy getting it so right for its cycling community. We had a second breakfast of chocolate muesli (that Olly is really missing in New Zealand) on the highway and then tried to beat the rain to Saint Peter’s Square. We got pretty close! We followed a cycle path right into the heart of the Vatican City, the traffic increased, but it was mostly pedestrians we were now dodging! It was quite surreal to step off our bikes in Saint Peter’s Square as it was another goal realised and our Italian adventure and the first European leg of the trip, were rapidly reaching their end. We took a couple of photographs, Olly was slightly disappointed that there was no special reception awaiting us hosted by the Pope, clicked back in to our pedals and cycled away.

Just before the cycle highway
The cycleway right into Rome - brilliant!
The end of this road

Fortunately, we had a place to stay. There are almost 300 Warm Showers hosts in Rome and we sent out a fair few messages before getting a reply from Suzanne. Our stay with Suzanne was incredibly relaxing and restorative and even though she went away for the weekend, she let us stay at her place which is typical of the kindness and trust of the Warm Showers community. We are so grateful to Suzanne because by the time we reached Rome I think we were quite mentally saturated. Although we spent a day sightseeing, we almost had to drag ourselves around! Rome offers plenty, but we had had our fill. Instead, what we enjoyed most was some real downtime. For example, the lazy morning we spent with Suzanne who was working from home. We read whilst she worked, and we all had lots of tea and porridge. That evening, Suzanne hosted a small dinner party: me, Olly, Suzanne and two of her friends. All anglophones, conversation was easy and the evening wonderful. We made pasta and cooked up all sorts of other vegetables to create such a feast. It was perfect! Sarah, Suzanne’s friend, had been to a posh pasticceria in the Vatican City and so we had some fancy, sweet treats for dessert too.

Celebratory pizza for lunch

Pasta making with Suzanne
Sweet treats

Two days later we said goodbye to Suzanne’s apartment and caught the train to Ostia from the station right nearby. We had booked into an Airbnb in order to prepare for the flight to New Zealand. Entry requirements for New Zealand are strict because of how damaging pests have been on the natural, native environment, something that we now discuss almost daily. Days of scrubbing with a toothbrush ensued: the bikes and all of their components, shoes, panniers, stands, seats and the tent. Olly spent a lot of time working on the bikes, deconstructing them so that we could put them in boxes for the three flights that separated us from Auckland. These days were busy, long and quite stressful too. I made a heavy withdrawal from my patience pot as I stood in the post office for two hours in an effort to send some surplus kit home. Olly meanwhile was battling a similar angst with the bikes as bits wouldn’t unscrew or broke as he took them apart. We walked three kilometres to the bike shop to pick up some spare parts and two bike boxes too, but hadn’t properly figured how we would get them the three kilometres home. A comedic, slow walk with boxes balanced on the back of a bike was the result. We nearly caved and bought a MacDonald’s and I’m sure we would have if we hadn’t stockpiled so much of our favourite Italian food for the flights only to then worry about whether we’d actually be able to take in on board with us. I was incredibly reluctant to sacrifice the hazelnut wafers!

We were very fortunate that our Airbnb host was a former, long-haul flight air hostess and so Beatrice was understanding of the upside-down and chaotic state of the apartment for a few days. She organised our transport to the airport too. It transpired that it was harder to get from Ostia to the airport (10km) than from central Rome (a lot more km). We went to bed the night before departure day. It was late and there were so many thoughts fighting for space in our minds, namely, was there anything essential that we had forgotten?! Thanks to briefly crossing paths with another cycle tourist we had booked onward flights from New Zealand to Thailand just a few days previously, without them it is likely we would have been denied entry to the land of the long white cloud. In the morning I woke up with a familiar feeling that I couldn’t initially place. I was groggy and I realised it was how I had felt almost every weekday morning for a long time. I had not missed that feeling and know that I don’t want to go back to experiencing it as standard.

At the airport we passed a counter where you could get your boarding passes printed and so did so excitedly. The friendly and smiling man working there asked where we were going and I giddily replied, ‘New Zealand!’.