miles, 16 mph average13
Geneva - Martigny
From Geneva's Cointrin Airport I set off on my route
into the bright sunshine and surprising warmth of an early autumn
afternoon. As cities go, Geneva meets my ideals - it is about as
civilised as a city could be, friendly, cosmopolitan and with a
population of just under 200,000, not too large. It deserves a longer
visit but I wanted to set off into the foothills of the Alps as
soon as possible as it was already past 4pm. I soon picked up the
cycle path that follows the southern shores of the lake past the
d'Eau that has now been adopted as Geneva's emblem. Within a
few miles I was out of Switzerland and into France, but sadly the
cycle path disappeared leaving me to do battle with the commuter
By the time I had reached Evian-les-Bains (whence the bottled water
comes) the chill of evening had descended and I donned some extra
layers. In my haste to get moving I had stuffed my only pair of
casual shorts in the top of the rear pannier and foolishly not secured
it properly as it was just too full. The predictable happened somewhere
on the road a while later and without an alternative I was facing
the prospect of dinner wearing lyrca cycling shorts as the shops
had now closed.
At the eastern end of the lake with Montreux in sight on the far
shore, I swung south to climb steadily along the Rhone valley, back
into Swiss territory and to face the Alps for the first time. They
stood high and mighty as an impenetrable barrier; a solid wall of
sheer rock with no apparent way through. Near Martigny, where the
Drance and Rhone converge, darkness fell and I found a very pleasant
hotel for the night. The Swiss must take their dinners early as
the receptionist pointed out that the restaurant was about to close
so if I wanted to eat I had better sit down straightaway. This was
quite a relief, as without alternative shorts, I had no fellow diners
|Geneva - Rome
91 miles, 11 mph average14
Over the Alps
I started much later than I'd hoped to begin my Alpine ascent, but
I needed a full breakfast as places to stop on the road ahead looked
few and far between. The road pulled up the Dranse D'Entremont -
clad gorge leading past Orsieres
and the trendy ski resort of Verbier. So far the gradient was tolerable,
but four hours of non-stop, breathless pedalling were starting to
break me down. The climb could have been easier had it not been
for a nagging headwind, not a hurricane but just enough to impede
my progress. Before Bourg
St Pierre and at a height roughly equivalent to Ben Nevis, it
started to rain. Then the wind grew stronger. Then the rain became
heavier, closing in any chance of a view. Before the St Bernard
tunnel proper the road is covered to protect it from snow, avalanches
and rock-falls, and whilst this ruined what was left of any view,
its gloom at least offered some protection from the elements. At
an altitude just below 2km, the tunnel begins and cyclists are banished
to climb another 500m skywards over 10 miles of steep snaking singletrack
road to the summit.
After Caesar's conquest of Gaul, The Great St Bernard Pass became
the favoured route across the Alps and emperors from Barbarossa
in 1162 to Napoleon in 1800 have trodden the same route. From the
end of September to June the route becomes impassable due to its
inclement weather and high snowfall of course. As I emerged from
the mouth of the tunnel, the full force of the Alpine gale hit me.
It was impossible to stand up straight and to move forwards on the
bike was painfully slow even in my lowest gear. Upwards I wound,
becoming soaked to the skin in no time, whilst each and every hairpin
another false summit. Had the visibility been better I might
have been able to see Mont Blanc on my right and the Matterhorn
to my left, but by the time I reached the Col at 2469m above sea
level I was deep
St Bernard founded his hospice at the top of the pass to offer food
and shelter to pilgrims and clerics bound for Rome. I really wasn't
ready to face the descent without a break so I tried the door in
search of shelter. "Où allez-vous?" asked the monk
at the door, looking somewhat disdainfully at my pathetic, sodden
form. "Rome" I replied. "Sur un pélerinage?"
came the next question, but before I could think I heard the lie
slip from my lips, "Oui!" Surely lying to a monk must
ensure eternal damnation. I wrestled with my conscience, arguing
that I was truly going to Rome and if a pilgrimage is not an arduous
voyage of self-discovery then what is it? But inside I knew that
my route had been planned purely on grounds of historical and geographical
interest without any thought for theology prior to that exact moment.
His face lit up, I was ushered in and directed immediately to the
laundry room, where my saturated clothes were placed in a tumble
dryer, and then down to the dining hall. Once I had eaten, I asked
if it would be possible to see the famous St Bernard dogs bred here
since the Middle Ages to sniff out travellers lost in the snow.
Nothing seemed to be too much trouble and whilst the handful of
tourists visiting the monastery peered in through the window I was
treated to an introduction to the delightful Lulu!
With dried clothes and lifted spirits I set out over the Italian
border on the 22 mile downhill run to Aosta. Still no view and still
more rain. Coming into a set of hairpins I was caught by two
German motorcyclists, but as I could see down over the precipice
to the road
below I was able to cut the corner and re-take them on the inside
of the bend. On the straight they roared past in a blaze of Teutonic
glory, their BMW exhausts barking out loud, but at the next zigzag
they slowed once more and minced around at a walking pace, allowing
me through on the inside again. Before leaving England I'd had the
bike's gears re-worked with a very high (53-11) top gear just for
these conditions, and now I was able to keep up 40mph without spinning
out so that even on the short straights they didn't make up too
much ground on me and they only shook me off a few miles after the
tunnel emerged from the mountainside above the chocolate box pretty
village of Etroubles.
Aosta has been a fortress town guarding the Dora
Baltea valley (and hence the best approach to the St Bernard
Pass) since being founded by Emperor Augustus in 24 BC, and it is
from him that its name has evolved. The whole Valle
D'Aosta has long been of strategic importance and is chock-a-block
with castles and ancient ruins, such as that at Fenis
famous also for its 14th century palatial opulence. The foreboding
di Bard was built in the 11th century probably on Roman foundations
and held back Napoleon's southwards march in 1800. It was taken
after a long siege and destroyed, but rebuilt on Napoleon's orders
in 1825. Most of Piedmont, including the Valle D'Aosta, was once
part of French speaking Savoy and I could still make myself better
understood with my schoolboy French than with the handful of Italian
phrases I'd learned a few weeks before leaving home.
The old road clung to the sides of the valley and swooped up and
down through various towns, whilst the Autostrada ploughed its way
along the valley floor and blasted its way through every obstacle,
and spanning the river at every turn. I'd hoped that the older road
would have been quiet, with the Autostrada draining off the bulk
of the traffic. But it was heaving with local traffic and I was
getting my first taste of the infamous, impatient Italian driving.
With clouds hanging low over the land and the rain unabated, it
was growing dark enough to switch on my lights by 4pm and by 5pm
I'd had enough and checked into the only hotel in Pont St Martin.
It had neither a laundry, a restaurant, nor any heating so I rinsed
my sodden clothes in the sink and hung them out by the window before
setting out in search of food.
|Geneva - Rome
33 miles, 15mph average15
My clothes were still cold and damp in the morning and the rain
had continued to fall all night long. Proper rain. None of your
damp drizzle but real, incessant, gushing rain. The road was awash
and the gutters ran like rivers. The forecast on TV was full of
stories of floods and burst river banks and I could see for myself
how bad it was by the time I arrived in Ivrea
during the morning rush hour. More appalling driving. The road was
too busy for speed so they simply huddled together barely giving
an inch between nose and tail and brushing past me way too close.
I turned away from the valleys and mountains as the road stretched
away onto the plains and rice fields of Piedmont. The rain persisted
shrouding beautiful Lake Viverone and denying any chance of a clear
photo, so here is how it looks on a bright
Bang, is all I can remember except a vague feeling of being thrown
through the air. Divine retribution maybe for deceiving that monk
so shamefully? On regaining consciousness I looked to the heavens
to see the sky filled with umbrellas, like a scene from a Fred and
Ginger Hollywood dance spectacular. A crowd had gathered and made
a shelter over me whilst I was out for the count. My primary concern
was for my bike (as it always the case for any true cyclist!), but
on realising that I couldn't stand I slumped back down in the road.
The paramedics stretchered me into the ambulance and asked me questions
that seemed to have me baffled. What was my name? Was I travelling
alone? Where was I staying? I knew that I should know, but the answers
just weren't forthcoming. I was so mystified that I failed to notice
that my cycling leggings had been ripped open from the hip to the
knee. The nurses seemed to like the ragged look though! I gradually
started coming to my senses, but the pain in my chest wasn't getting
any better and the x-rays revealed a couple of cracked ribs. Valeria
and Danilo of the Croce Rossa showed me enormous sympathy and later
on I was bundled back into their ambulance to be reunited with my
bike and driven to the local bike shop. Now that's what I call a
The bike looked awful,
but by a miracle the bike shop owner had a set of wheels that were
an exact match available second hand and in mint condition. They
were fitted in no time and confirmed that the bike was now fully
recovered and he complimented the strength of the titanium frame
on withstanding such an impact. Aluminium or steel would almost
certainly have been bent out of shape, but the ultimate bike building
material had come away unscathed and by all reports had just about
written off the car that had rammed me from behind.
Overnight hospitalisation was deemed unnecessary but I was recommended
to rest at the closest hotel to the hospital in Pavia. The rain
started to ease so I had a quick look about at some of the sights
of the city that was once the capital of Lombardy and home to one
of Europe's oldest (1361) and most respected universities. It's
was once worked on by Leonardo Da Vinci, and the town has a handsome
dating from the Renaissance.
|Geneva - Rome
45 miles, 11 mph average16
The Po Valley
I stayed in bed late, fidgeting and unable to get comfortable. Most
of my right side was either bruised or grazed, lying on my left
hurt my ribs and if I settled on my back I couldn't get up as I'd
pulled the muscles at the front of my neck. 5 miles north of Pavia
is the Carthusian monastery or Certosa
(charterhouse), so it seemed an ideal 'test ride' away. It wasn't
the most comfortable ride ever but there was at least an empty,
flat cycle path and it beat languishing in self-pity. I didn't fancy
fighting city traffic again just yet, so I hopped on the train to
Milan for more sightseeing. The only good thing Mussolini did for
Italy was to make the trains run on time. He also commissioned the
central railway station almost a rival to Milan's Duomo (cathedral).
The cathedral took 500 years to complete has 135 spires
and is one of the largest gothic churches in the world. In the 4th
century, it was from Milan that the Roman emperor Constantine issued
his edict recognising Christianity as the official religion of the
empire. Nowadays historians see this more as a cunning political
move to unite an increasingly disparate empire than any step of
great faith. La
Scala - the world famous opera house - is only a few minutes
away from the cathedral and right next door is the latter day temple
of modern fashion that is the Galleria
Vittorio Emanuel with its glass domed roof and mosaic floor.
The mosaics depict the signs of the zodiac and standing on Taurus'
genitals is said to bring good luck. I needed a change of luck so
I jumped up and down with both feet and rode my bike over them just
for good measure!
I had more time in Milan than I had bargained for as my very own
fascist dictator at the railway enquiry office had misinformed me
about taking my bike on the next train as cycles are only allowed
on regional trains and not the intercity. So, still not feeling
up to any great mileage through the largely industrialised valley
of the River Po on what would probably be busy roads, I took a day
ticket via Cremona - birthplace of violin maker Stradivarius, and
Parma - home of Parma ham, parmesan cheese and the exquisite pink
and white Baptistry
dating back to 1196. My final stop was Bologna whose cobbled streets
rattled my ribcage and punctured my tyre. By the time I found the
centre with its Neptune
fountain and 12th century tower
I was getting fed up with the noise and bustle of the towns and
was longing for the open road.
My map showed a country road leading south of the city and indeed
I was in open
country within a few miles. What the map didn't show was that
the road was a six-mile climb with a tough gradient. I found that
it was too painful to stand on the pedals and haul the bike along
and as soon as I got out of breath my ribs would remind me of their
distress. I just had to spin it out in bottom gear sat in the saddle.
It was slow going but I was soon rewarded with great views out over
the mountains ahead. However, my labours were in vain as soon enough
the road spiralled back down to the valley loosing all the height
I had gained in a few
short miles. No sooner had I reached the valley that the wind
and rain swept back in soaking me through in minutes.
Time to call it a day I thought, and after a brief search found
an anonymous looking hotel in the middle of nowhere. The young lad
on reception had no sympathy with me and seemed more concerned about
the puddles I was leaving on the floor than my need for a hot meal
and a hot bath. When I asked about bringing the bike inside he nearly
fainted. I cut him dead mid-sentence with my hardest of Paddington
Bear hard stares. He shut up and showed me the storeroom where my
trusty steed was locked away for the night. Dinner and breakfast
were as anonymous and plastic as the rest of the hotel and I was
glad to leave at first light the next morning.
|Geneva - Rome
106 miles, 14 mph average17
The Apennine Mountains
The road was still as damp as my clothes again in the morning and
even though a few spots of rain still fell, it didn't look too threatening.
This was a classic Roman mountain road. The ancient surveyors accurately
plotted out routes with gradients rarely steeper than 1 in 20 such
that their chariots and carts would have no difficultly negotiating.
It was an ideal road for cycling as the serpentine twists kept the
views ever changing and the traffic stayed on the nearby motorway.
It added plenty of extra miles than a direct route but the height
was gained in a relatively painless fashion, with Castiglione
coming into view by coffee-time and the pass
at just over 1,000m soon after. It was going to be all downhill
(Florence) from here.
The painkillers were doing a great job and as the road dried out
my 'mojo' returned, top gear was selected and I started to push
hard through the valleys overtaking a few other cyclists out for
their Sunday morning spin.
Florence - a beautiful monument to the artistic and cultural reawakening
of the 15th century. Writers such as Dante and Machiavelli have
contributed to its literary heritage whilst painters and sculptors
such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Donatello have made it one
of the world's greatest artistic capitals.
After the peace of the mountains I found the city's haste, hassle
and haranguing not to my taste and without time to explore properly
I made my way over the river Arno
and headed south past some archetypal walled hilltop
The road climbed high up into the Chianti
region with its blood-red sangiovese grapes hanging heavy on
the vines as harvest time approached. By late afternoon I was heading
into Siena. A football match had just finished and I had to battle
my way against the tide of fans leaving the centre. At the city
gates a weighty policewoman made a gesture at me that I misunderstood
to mean I should cross the road as she was holding back a mass of
supporters. Suddenly she turned on her heel, shrieked at me and
grabbed me by the arm trying to turn me back. I was still clipped
into my pedals and the only way of avoiding crashing to the ground
was to shove her away. A roar went up from the delighted crowd followed
by a round of applause as I indignantly got back on my bike and
rode right around her significant girth and into the walled city!
Siena's mediaeval maze of narrow streets led me down to the Piazza
del Campo and graceful
gothic town hall with its 102m high bell tower.
The light was still good enough at 6pm to press on but I passed
the most gorgeous monastery that had been converted into a hotel
and couldn't resist making enquiries. At 45 Euro for the night including
breakfast I was delighted, especially when my bike was made welcome
too and housed in a room right next to reception. I retired to my
rather luxurious monastic cell and enjoyed a piping hot shower.
Dinner in the vaults was equally splendid; a huge steak washed down
with local Chianti all helped me forget the traumas of the previous
|Geneva - Rome
85 miles, 14 mph average18
A thick fog hung over the land and I certainly wasn't going to risk
riding out in any reduced visibility. I made my breakfast last as
long as possible and by 10am I felt it was OK to go. Now I was out
in the typical Tuscan landscape with its rolling hills of ochre
and, finally, a little misty sunshine. Cypress and pine were planted
as windbreaks around isolated farmhouses as the road rose up to
the moorland area of the Crete Senesi also know as the Tuscan desert.
I was on the Via Cassia, the main route north from Rome and that
used by Julius Caesar in 49BC on his way to defeat Pompey and bring
an end to the Republic and the beginning of autocratic rule. The
road was very quiet and I relished the isolation.
I came across three hikers and stopped to ask them where they were
going. They also were going to Rome - true pilgrims this time having
walked all the way from Cologne. It seemed a little contradictory
that they should hail from the very heartland of the reformation
but I guess things had changed since the 16th century! For a brief
spell I felt the wind behind me, having suffered the same persistent
headwind everyday and the sun even peeked out between the clouds.
Near the pretty hill town of Aquapendente
I approached a tunnel. It was totally unlit so I waited at its mouth
to be sure of no pursuing traffic and made a break for it. At the
halfway point I heard the sound of an engine that gradually built
up behind me into a roaring crescendo, I looked back to be dazzled
by two vast headlamps and so I made a concerted effort to make the
exit of the tunnel in fear of being mowed down again. We burst out
into the sunlight simultaneously, the rays of light sparkling off
the bodywork of a massive 1920's roadster, the driver and passenger
tooting and waving from their open topper as they passed.
The hills of Tuscany led south to a region formed by the eruption
of four volcanoes. The soil, rendered fertile by the lava, nourished
vines, olives, fruit and nut trees, whilst redundant craters formed
freshwater lakes the largest of which is Lake
It is now very much a holiday area for swimming and sailing, much
of it focussed on the pretty town of Bolsena itself dominated by
its medieval castle.
High on the rim of the crater stood Montefianscone at the end of
a seemingly endless climb - the day was wearing on and I was wearing
out. Since my puncture in Bologna I had led a fruitless search for
a bike shop to replace my only spare inner tube and as the rain
had ruined my repair kit, I had been more than a little nervous
of another burst tyre. Montefiascone
boasted a fine bike shop that doubled up as a moped dealer for all
the young lads of the town, who buzzed up and down the high street
heading nowhere in particular.
From the volcanic mountains the road swept away downhill to Viterbo,
but the Via Cassia merged with another major route and became congested
and polluted, with the Italian drivers up to their worst yet again.
I couldn't face more city mayhem and as Viterbo was largely decimated
during World War 2 (and its only claim to fame seeming to be as
Papal seat in the 16th century), I gave it a miss and headed to
the hills for my night stop. Each village had the usual trattoria
(snack bar) but none had the cheap rooms to let that I had been
told might be available. I rejoined the Via Cassia at Vetralla and
found the only hotel. It was a modern multi-storey monstrosity and
as bland as hospital food, but there was no alternative, especially
as my front light had also succumbed to the ingress of water and
was now useless.
The rain started to pour once more as I walked into the town in
search of a restaurant. The one restaurant there was closed for
a holiday leaving only the pizza take-away. The pizza was not at
all the culinary delight I would have imagined Italy to have yielded,
but fat doughy creations that were precooked and simply warmed up
to order. The boss let me lean against the counter to eat rather
than trek back to the hotel in the rain, but the pizzeria seemed
to be the haunt for all the local chavs with their noisy Fiats 'blinged-up'
to the max. They revved and span their wheels on the wet cobblestones
and five minutes of their cacophony was more than enough for me
so I made my way back to the hotel.
|Geneva - Rome
60 miles, 14 mph average19
Lazio and Rome
The first 10 miles of the Via Cassia were scenic but uncomfortably
busy so I took a detour up through some hills and was rewarded with
a great early morning view of Lago
di Bracciano. The lake is a popular retreat for wealthy Romans
who have stayed in sumptuous lakeside
villas since the days of the empire and a few weeks after my
visit Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes were wed there.
The road circumnavigated the shores of the lake to medieval Anguillara
where I stopped for coffee. Two sprightly 60 year olds pulled up
on their bikes at the same time and bade me "boun giorno".
I was becoming bolder in my Italian now, and with a mixture of cobbled
phrases and sign language we held a stinted but intelligible conversation
about where I came from, how long it had taken and, of course, the
accident. They shook their heads and made curses about the evil
people from the north and their satanic ways! With that they knocked
back their espressos and paid for mine wishing me well on the last
leg of the journey into Rome.
The Via Cassia led straight to the Vatican. It was largely downhill
and largely in crawling traffic. Now I was in my element. With only
traffic in front of me to worry about I could cut and carve my way
through the cars, making great progress and really having a whale
of a time. In no time I was standing outside of Catholicism's most
sacred shrine; the marble-caked basilica of St Peter's topped
with Michelangelo's dome. Around the walls of the city state a queue
a mile long and five deep wound its way to the Vatican museum and
Sistine chapel. I noticed later, with some cynicism, that the queues
could be avoided by procuring an evening tour ticket for 175 Euro.
Nice to see the church hasn't lost it touch for a good business
deal; Martin Luther would be spinning in his grave!
I crossed the Tiber at the Castel
Sant Angelo. The building has served as fortress, citadel and
prison over the years and has a tunnelled link to the Vatican to
provide an escape route for popes and cardinals in times of unrest.
The local TV news headlines of floods had been overtaken during
the week by (ironically) violent reactions to critical comments
made by the pope about Muslim aggression, and I wondered if he might
be seeking refuge in the Castel right now.
Rome wasn't built in a day and cannot be explored in a day, so I
made my way past the flamboyant Victor Emmanuel II monument
commemorating unified Italy's first king and onto the Colloseum
that is nowadays one giant roundabout. Rome is notorious for petty
crime but I had no idea that even the statues would try to steal
I wanted to stay near the centre but not in some glitzy city hotel
so I took to the back streets in search of a bargain. The directions
I had been given to a B&B were hopeless as the house numbers
were all out of synch, but I passed a small, gated courtyard with
a bell mounted on a brass plate inscribed 'Hotel Camelot'. The name
seemed irresistibly bizarre so I gave it a ring. They had one room
available in the ground floor annex (perfect for the bike) and at
a very reasonable price (for Rome anyway). The gate opened electronically
and at the corner of the courtyard a small door led into a magnificent
marble reception. The hotel appeared to be populated by the most
eccentric retired English gentlefolk, each one of whom could have
been typecast for the character set of an Agatha Christie novel.
There was 'The Major' who wore a cravat and monocle, 'The Bore'
who droned on in a loud voice about his friend whom he described
as a vaticanarian. I wondered if this meant he was bright yellow
as well as being an expert in papal maters. 'The sisters' were a
couple of ladies in their latter years who would wear hats at all
times and drink tea with nervous shaking hands, calling each other
'dearie'. I hid in the corner of the lounge behind the Times whose
pages trembled as I stifled my sniggering. It was the perfect ending
to a less than perfect ride.