They say that serotonin levels increase in proportion to sunlight exposure. So, in theory, I was getting happier and happier as we approached Rome. But I’m pretty sure that our 29 days in the saddle offset that happy hormonal benefit. The serotonin was probably keeping exhaustion at bay, at best. The only times I felt happy in Rome was after three dopio espressos reanimated me.
The getting to Rome has been a five and a half year campaign. It started when my co-cyclegrim said he was thinking of walking to Rome. This was in Dalkey, the town where we both grew up, meeting again over a coffee in the spring of 2019. Given the coincidence that I had been planning solo walks down the Rhine and Danube, walking to Compostela from Brussels and perhaps following the trails taken by Roman Legions from Rome to Madrid, I asked if he wanted company. A few short scoping discussions followed over the coming months. Then we made a compatibility-check by hiking on Offa’s Dyke, the ancient boundary that once protected Mercia from the Welsh. Deemed compatible after four decades of separation since university, it was agreed that we’d set out together on April Fools Day 2020.
The Rome walk had to be postponed during the pandemic. When it was resurrected, it had morphed to a cycle from Manchester to Canterbury which we duly completed on a snowy April Fools Day 2022. An eighteen month gap followed before we resumed and cycled the rest of the way to Rome, which we concluded yesterday.
And there’s the history for you. Which is odd because the overwhelming feeling over the last 24 hours has been the need to forget. My arrival was disappointing because of the mental baggage I seemed to have brought. Exhaustion plays tricks on the exhausted and I urgently need to overlook it to overcome it. But it’s a struggle.
For him, this was always a journey. For me, it was an adventure of the 1930s kind that Patrick Leigh-Fermor documented in A Time of Gifts. There was no sense of pilgrimage for either of us despite it being along pilgrim routes. Striking then that we recognised very few pilgrims. Then again, the Via Francigena is perhaps best thought of as an average of all possible routes between the formerly obeisant England and the boss in Rome. Perversely, it seems that all routes of tribute, no matter how crooked, lead to Rome, something that might have pleased earlier less holy Roman Emperors.
Arrival in Rome meant that the cyclegrims needed an exit but landslides and derailments in Switzerland complicated the return by rail. We’d left my van in Canterbury and discussed ways to get there over dinner last night. I suggested a flight to Gatwick given that we’d almost certainly have to box the bikes in order to transport them by train. If rail, I joked about a layover in Paris for the Rugby World Cup quarter final using a train via Munich perhaps? Or more slowly by Genoa and Nice maybe?
But no, the night brought the realisation that flight was our best strategy. He booked a flight to Manchester before breakfast saying “It just makes sense”.
Such are the kinds of things that can happen on tours like this. Exhaustion and overexposure can create a need to take affirmative action. Sometimes you have to take a step back to change perspectives. Sometimes a crisis is what pushes you back that step.
We went for breakfast and my panino came wrapped in a novelty bag, a copy of an old British newspaper’s advertisement pages. Intriguing. I wondered what year these enthusiastic entrepreneurs posted their ads:
- Become a GOOD PIANIST
- A Farthing a Meal
- Mark your linen with MELANYL
- IVY Soap. IT FLOATS!!
- Norris’s Horse-Skin boots
- Rowland’s Kalydor
- PURE IRISH LINEN SHIRTS
After breakfast, I researched my own options and decided not to commit until I knew how we’d get our bikes boxed. ‘Research’ took us to bike shops that couldn’t help and ultimately, we found a shop that could.
The flight of the cyclegrims was being prepared and then we realised that despite using the same airline for the two destinations, we also had two Rome airports as their origins. The flights of the cyclgrims might need need a brace of taxis.
I thought of the Ryoanji temple my wife and I visited in Kyoto, Japan where I learned a little of the concept of ‘mu’. Though I’m not a Buddhist, I grasped easily the concept of nonbeing and nothingness – perhaps a seven year sentence in boarding school prepared me. I became content because my adventure was an enormously rewarding experience and the memories would last as long as my brain or until Instagram and WordPress forget me. And yet there is this underlying pressure to forget. I suppose I’m still emotionally drained and hopefully, this will pass.
I have regrets. I’d like have gone to Carrara, for example. Or Montepulciano though to be fair, quirky San Quirico was an excellent substitute.
I have reliefs too. No injuries, no rain, no theft and no intolerable personality clashes. Heck, WW3 hasn’t even started just yet.
Talking of intolerable, the noise in the Airbnb flat drove me out once I’d booked my flight. There were literally three jackhammers in the flat above me. I had a small dressing on my forehead after one of several kitchen cabinet corners finally caught me. I cycled around to the Coliseum, Circus Maximus, Pantheon and legions of other sites. Hoardings and maintenance scaffolding hid some. Maximum security alerts put soldiers on the streets and several buildings were draped with Israeli flags though they were outnumbered by the more official Ukrainian flags fluttering from poles on ministerial buildings. I found a huge vegetarian meal as pranza near the Pantheon, the steed tethered beside me as I enjoyed the street scenes. I wished I had a real camera with me as building workers air-hosed the limey dust from their hair and overalls: backlit, it was an ethereal sight. Italy seems to have no need for safety helmets.
Taking the boxed bike and my panniers as luggage added considerably to the cost and I wondered if it was worth taking the bike home at all. But the bicycle was already such an investment that the incremental costs ‘sort of’ made sense.
We went for one last dinner together. The third restaurant looked ideal. My feed of pasta and the tagliatelle in his bolognese were made by the woman of the house on a table just behind where I sat. An ‘authentic’ last cena.