We spent a breakfast-time hour looking for a place to stay in Rome. Pads and phones enabled the winnowing. We chose a just-in-time or last-minute methodology for hotel bookings for the entirety of this trip because you’d never know how far you’d get in a day. Age becomes a factor after retirement – who knows what bits will exceed their shelf lives without warning.
Two American pilgrims broke fast near our table and we attempted to compare experiences. We spotted them due their carb loading behaviour. They were walking Francigena so we switched to the loyalty of dogs after a few more searches for commonality had failed. I’m being a bit unfair but sometimes you wonder why dogs are so important when humanity struggles to look after its own species. Last night, a great vegetarian meal was served to us in this same restaurant from a menu that also offered ‘Donkey Foal (36 months)’ as a main course. Cowtail sauce anyone?
Moving on, the longest we ever booked ahead was two days. And of course Rome is a famously hard place to get affordable accommodation. But we succeeded and booked in for two nights using Airbnb for the first time this trip. And still the rain and punctures held off.
Imagine that: we’ve seen rain but cycled no more than one kilometre in it. We’d not predicted such one in two thousand and if we had, my panniers would be lighter by the two kilos of rain gear we’ve never really needed.
Last time out, between Manchester and Canterbury, I was the only one to get punctures. Three and all in one day from thorn bush clippings left on cycle paths by inconsiderate council trimming policies. This time I carried two spare inner tubes and a full puncture repair kit including a pump. Another kilo I didn’t need to carry 2000 km given that we got no punctures.
I’m not complaining just pointing out that we know how lucky we have been. Never cold enough or snowy enough to warrant the thermals I brought: that’s another 3 kg I could have left behind.
Scale it up: bringing an unnecessary 6 kilograms over 2000 km is like cycling, me plus bike weighing 90 kg, some 130 km. Not precisely but you get the idea. Save weight if you cycle.
Digression over, a route to Rome had been selected to get us off the insanely busy SS2, Via Cassia. The ‘rural’ route added a few hills, put us back on some white roads and brought us down by another lake. But visiting Lake Bracciano out of season is like visiting … I can’t think of anywhere though Scunthorpe comes to mind. Is that a relic of the mid-90s when we used to put Scunthorpe into our emails just to get reported for using obscene words on corporate networks? The tired mind goes to weird places and this tired brain needed another doppio espresso.
You’d think people who studied geology together would take more interest in a place like Lake Bracciano. It’s another site of vulcanism but it’s a collapse feature, collapsing when the magma chamber had emptied itself in a series of volcanoes and vents nearby. The resulting depression filled with water and these days it’s both a major reservoir for Rome and a protected national park. And closed for the off season. Totally closed. It seems that malaria was so prevalent until about 100 years ago that few properties are close to the water’s edge. Then again the Romans built villas on the coast but when the lake water levels rose, thought to be around 1AD, they were submerged and lost.
We headed on. An incident with a level crossing jarred a pannier off a bike and under a car. The bag was dragged 100 metres before the driver stopped and the bag could be recovered. The bag survived enough that it could function for the last day but it’s really beyond use. As we looked back at the railway line, we could see guys in orange jackets had just arrived to repair the road. A little late for us.
We headed on and found a traffic jam beside which we could eat lunch on the hard shoulder. There were restaurants on both sides of the road but they were closed because the traffic jam was caused by major road repairs. So there was no point in opening on this two lane highway. One lane was closed and the traffic flow was managed with the automated temporary traffic lights we all know. But know also that on average, counted over the 25 minutes we were there, nine vehicles broke the red lights. Some were huge trucks joining the conga-line. Scary stuff. No wonder there are so many flower-decked Virgin Mary shrines on this road.
We pedalled on. Up and down in the 32 degree post meridian heat. Whoosh, whummmm, thrummm, beep, shrooom, weewaw, vroom, beep beep went the cars, trucks, buses, ambulances, motorcycles as they passed, headed towards Rome. Let’s agree it was busy. Then we hit a section of triple carriageway; think not quite Autostrade. Several kilometres of smooth asphalt, hardly any traffic and we were doing more than 25 kph. How the other half live!
Suddenly we transited to cycle routes and we passed quickly through the suburbs until we encountered a slight change of direction, guarded by two short pillars. Unfortunately, I witnessed what happens when a chain is hung between them and a cyclist, distracted by changing directions, doesn’t see the chain. He stopped dead. His panniers shot forward like rockets fired from a fighter bomber. And weren’t we lucky. He was bruised yet upright and the bike was unharmed. Incredible.
We draped the panniers back on the bike and carried on. I don’t know how it happened but it seemed sudden. We were at St Peter’s Square. 29 days, the quest was over. 2012 km on the road, the journey was complete. 111 hours of pedalling, the adventure was done.
I can’t remember much except it was hot and I felt disappointed somehow. There were all of these thousands of people standing about in their touristy queues, on photo quests not knowing of the two cyclegrims who had just arrived from Canterbury. No announcements. No brass bands. No papal welcome. Just black guys asking us if we wanted to buy USB battery packs. So many guys that I was asked three of four times before we took the obligatory selfie and sat under the fountain, enjoying the shade and rain.
Shade and rain. I noticed people staring at the only two cyclgrims in the square. I thought of schadenfreude, that they were showing the exact opposite of the spirit of Christianity. I wanted to tell them what we had done. Childish, yes. Tired and emotional, yes. And still smelling like Joan of Arc with little rimes of sweat-salt.
We decamped to collect our testimonials, the certificates pilgrims get for completing the route. We got our credentials stamped but you can only get the testimonial at St Peter’s tomb. Guess what? You have to queue to enter the papal tombs through St. Peter’s Basilica. No fast track. And if you think airline queues are long, you’d have decided to forgo the testimonials in favour of ice cream cones. Which is what we did.
Then we cycled to the AirBnB in Trastevere. In Roman traffic. We carried our exhausted steeds up the stairs and I parked mine beside my bed.
Showered and after dining on delicious pizza and a big fresh salad, I went to bed with that anti-climactic feeling that accompanies total exhaustion.