55 miles, 16 mph average13 Sept 06Day 1
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 Jet 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 traffic.

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 to upset.



Geneva - Rome
91 miles, 11 mph average14 Sept 06Day 2
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 - a pine 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 offered yet 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 in cloud.

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 Forte 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 Sept 06Day 3
Piedmont


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 day.

BANG!

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 health service!

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 cathedral was once worked on by Leonardo Da Vinci, and the town has a handsome covered bridge dating from the Renaissance.



Geneva - Rome
45 miles, 11 mph average16 Sept 06Day 4
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 grand 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 Sept 06Day 5
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 to Firenze (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 towns.


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 days.



Geneva - Rome
85 miles, 14 mph average18 Sept 06Day 6
Tuscany


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 Bolsena. 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 Sept 06Day 7
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 my bike!

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.



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