Florence – Chiantishire – Asciano – Lake Bolsena – Lake Vico – Rome
The journey so far – with thanks to Richard Lane for mashing us up on Google Maps:
We left Florence and the comfort of Richard’s flat – with its walls and furniture and toaster – in what was now definitely Autumn. Our race south to chase down the end of summer had been boosted by unseasonally warm weather: in Florence jumpers were unthinkable and tropical swarms of mosquitoes gathered each evening to feed luxuriantly on our blood. But like the hare and the tortoise, our week of leisure allowed the inexorable plod of the seasons to regain the lead. Our departure day was marked by heavy rain, metamorphosing the following morning into miraculously bright, but decidedly crisp autumn weather riding down on a stiff north wind.
Apart from the chillier conditions, for which we are thankfully well equipped, this was all to the good, not least because it brought the first proper tailwind of our trip, much needed as we hauled ourselves south up into Chiantishire, as the Tuscan hills have been dubbed thanks to their popularity amongst wealthy, wine-loving middle-Englanders.
The Tuscan landscape was everything it’s cracked up to be – lush hills covered in vineyards and olive groves, medieval villages nestled between dense forests. Sadly our phone camera proved unequal to the task of capturing any worthwhile images, so I’ll have to assure you in writing: it’s all jolly nice. Our first night camping – on a path which turned out to be part of the Via Francigena, the ancient Roman road from Canterbury to Rome which we’d been following intermittently since Lake Geneva – was marred only by a nosy local who had spotted our head torch light from the road and drove up to see what we were up to. Informing us that we risked getting attacked by wolves camping in the woods (we didn’t take this very seriously) he suggested we’d feel much safer camped on a grassy knoll near his village. Our Italian wasn’t really up to explaining that we had been feeling perfectly safe were we were until he came up and shone his headlights and torch at us, and there was no way we were decamping before bed, so once we established that he wasn’t police and didn’t intend to call the police we thanked him for the information, nodded at everything he said and waited for him to go away.
It did leave us rather on edge for the next couple of nights, and matters were not helped by the fact that after a full day of lush Chiantishire (but not enough Chianti), we found ourselves, too close to sunset, looking for a camspite in a completely bald, exposed set of valleys, with all natural growth stripped away for intensive farming of some kind. Being late in the year, the massive, steep hills were ploughed bare: all their intimate bumps and hollows that should have been hidden under shrubbery exposed to the sky.
They weren’t the only thing that looked vulnerable and naked – every inch of flat, campable land seemed to be overlooked by a half-dozen farm houses, often over on far hills, but after our head torches attracted so much attention the night before, we were very wary of upsetting someone, especially since it all seemed to be private farmland. To make matters worse, we’d found ourselves on a 12k stretch of increasingly poor unmetalled road and were struggling to make any progress at faster than walking pace. We eventually escaped the bald hills but faced trying to find a place to camp after dark in a heavily farmed, but slightly more sheltered area north of Asciano, where EVERYONE seemed to keep a pack of dogs loose on their farm to chase off strangers. A stressful night spent in a field by the road, where the farmer fortunately failed to spot us when he drove into the field in the morning, left us tired, strung-out and longing for forest.
So we resolutely headed for the heights. Our next night was spent on a steep but quieter spot, perched on the edge of a mountain in a regional park, where the nosy Tuscan’s warning about wild animals seemed a bit more relevant. Snapping twigs and occasional grunts in the night suggested we’d pitched up next to a local boar highway (well, a single boar, who went past one way then the other) prompting us to secure our rubbish bag up a tree a fair way from the tent. Mr Grunty bothered us no further, no doubt as anxious as we were, thanks to the strange smells of human wee and toothpaste near his regular haunt.
More audacious was the house cat which accosted us the next night, camped by gorgeous Lake Bolsena. After it managed to rip apart our rubbish bag to get at chicken bones, we put the rubbish inside the tent, waking up the following morning after a noisy, windy night, to find cat paw prints all over the footprint in the porch where it had reached under the flysheet to try and get at the bag again. Happily it had failed – we didn’t have greasy chicken bones strewn all over our luggage and tent, and there were no rips in the fabric – but just goes to show there are worse animal nuisances than wild woodland creatures (slug invasions aside).
As Rome approached and it seemed increasingly unlikely that any of the Warm Showers hosts we’d contacted to ask for accommodation were going to reply, we steeled ourselves to spend some Euros on a Youth Hostel for a few days, unable to bear the thought of whizzing past the centre of the Roman Empire without stopping for a gander. In an incredible stroke of luck, we found ourselves temporarily sharing some tarmac with a couple of Roman cyclists called Giulia and Francesco who were curious about where we were going. It turned out they did a lot of cycle touring themselves and had been the recipients of spontaneous hospitality in Norway, when a local scooped them up out of the rain and put them up. Keen to pay back their dues, they invited us to come and stay in their house near the centre of Rome.
We followed their recommended route into the city, which was relatively painless traffic-wise and, pleasingly, met up again with the Via Francigena, giving us the satisfaction of having departed from the former Roman fort of Eboracum (York) and arriving in Rome, as would ancient travellers, on the road from the barbaric northern wastes (Canterbury).
Rome was, of course, spectacular. Our touristing focused on the ancient world leaving Renaissance art and culture for another visit. Having been awed by a couple of lines of Roman bricks in a wall in the Museum Gardens in York, and remnants of a Roman sewer under the minster, it was pretty stunning to turn up in Rome and see massive, towering piles of bricks, forming arches on top of arches on top of arches, to cycle under towering fragments of aqueducts and wander around the ruins of Augustus’ and Nero’s palaces and temples.
The best bit, though, was our route out of Rome, also recommended by Francesco and Giulia, along the ancient Via Appia, the Roman road to Brindisi (from where we will catch the ferry to Greece). Built in a stereotypically straight line, following a tongue of lava down from a nearby extinct volcano, the road was lousy with ancient ruins, fragments of Corinthian columns and carved capitals casually lying around along the side (actually they were probably very carefully placed!), with magnificent forts every few miles. Although an absolute top recommendation for anyone wanting to wonder around Roman ruins, if you’re planning to go by bike, make it a mountain bike – our fully laden tourers struggled to cope with the various cobble stones, especially the impressively massive, heavily rutted Roman originals.
So, on the road again, for the final stage of our Italian tour, heading down to Puglia, the heel of the boot, to catch a ferry to Greece.