Sunday, 3 July 2016

Message from Fr Michael

We're all back safe and pleased to have another mini-epic on the CV.  Physical tiredness is taking time to disappear, and I feel a bit like Adam who lost a rib for the making of Eve.  Mine is injured from a heavy tumble at a pothole that looked like a puddle and I have to brace myself for a sneeze or a cough or a laugh.  The laughter was particularly repetitive and copious on the journey so I am conscious of fragility.  So much has happened that some of the team will be talking about it at the CWL meeting on Wednesday 20th July at 2.30pm.
Much gratitude to sponsors, supporters and our wonderful physio, Denese, and fearless driver, Malcolm.
Fr Michael

Updates from Mike Burton

Friday and Saturday, 17-18th June

The next few days took us into rice fields which were low lying and level flooded areas, meaning that we could risk the gravel paths that meandered through them. These paths had some disadvantages though, some consisting of a very narrow mud wall that were just about passable by walking but not bikes. 

So a few improvised detours were in order, and soon we were back on track. Here we met several other pilgrims who were walking part of the Via Francigena.  A few clearly preferred to walk in silence, but many were friendly and enjoyed the chance to chat and compare stories with other pilgrims. 

At one point we passed a Pilgrim Refuge with distance signs to various places including 641km to Rome, we’re over half way there!

The agricultural machinery is interesting here, the wheels on this tractor allow it to drive through the flooded fields. 

The bikes have been developing some strange noises, 'Italian pedal creak' seems to be common.  On closer inspection it is just the crank arms groaning under the strain, we realised that each pedal will be subjected to over nine thousand tons of pressure during the three week trip, no wonder they are complaining! 

Today’s ride was quite short so we decided to press on to the amazing town of Pavia for a look around the cathedral and a few well earned beers at a pavement cafe.  The others brought the van to collect us, but liked the town so much that we all decided to stay there for dinner. 

Sunday, 19th June

 Well what a day!  A flood in the night soaked my bike clothes and my pack of printed maps (luckily the laptop was safe in its neoprene bag!)  I think the culprit was a loose drink-pipe in my backpack/drink container so I must remember to empty it at night from now on. 

The day was 20degC already, looking sunny as we left St Andrea Bagni, so wearing wet clothes was no hardship. Just as I dried off in time for our lunch stop at Berceto the heavens opened and the temperature dropped right down to 10degCHot chocolate, from the cafe where Malcolm and Denese had astutely parked for our lunch stop, was very welcome but we didn’t properly warm up even after that and we all suffered in the cold.  We were seriously considering a van ride from the top-up stop at Aulla but realised we might be able to find a way around the huge 800m climb sitting between us and the coast, and decided to give it a go. It worked out nicely and soon we were leaning into the downhill hairpins in bright sunlight as we approached our destination at the coastal town of Marina Di Massa where the temperature was now in the high twenties. 

The contrast of conditions through the day was striking as we enjoyed a photo-stop on the beach and a nice cruise along the beach-front. When we reached the hotel an even more amazing surprise awaited us - Mary, Maura and Anne, three lovely (and a little crazy!) ladies from St Joseph's had flown all this way to cheer us on.

Anne and Maura


As it happened they picked the perfect place to catch up with us as the town was lively and bustling, they treated us to dinner and later dancing at one of the many street parties that were kicking off. The wine worked wonders and we had a good chance to stretch our legs jumping around to the live music! 

Tuesday, 21st June

Last night Father Michael suggested that Denese and Malcolm should take the day off while we forage for lunch and water, not so tricky now as we pass through plenty of towns on this part of the Via Francigena route. This also gave Denese a chance to spend some time with her mum, Mary, and the other ladies, who had decided to spend the day in Pisa. 

We discovered that bikes are a great way to explore these lovely Italian towns, as we pass through San Gimignano and MontefesconiWe found it hard to drag ourselves away from an amazing street performance on a table-full of water-filled glasses, this musician could play chords by stroking four glasses at once, in perfect tune. (Click here to go to YouTube and watch in separate window)

Some of today’s 'roads' turned out to be gravel tracks, often eroded by flood water.  Some were quite steep and a bit too challenging for Captain Carnage.  Even with his improving bike skills a nasty patch of gravel caused his rear wheel to skid resulting in a quick taste of the Tuscan gravel.  Luckily these Yorkshire lads are tough and he suffered only light grazing. The gravel was no problem for Mick Claridge, his back wheel spends more time locked than spinning, no wonder he gets so many punctures!  Maybe he could fit a ski and save on tyre wear. 

His antics were very scary for the cameraman though, as this video clip shows.  (Click here to go to Youtube and view in separate window) 

Shortly afterwards we found a fountain with a plaque offering water for pilgrimsMick sampled it and reported saltiness so the rest of us gave it a miss. 

We had a long day today riding 65 miles and climbing some 1700m, so our beers on arrival at the night’s hotel in Siena were most welcome.  We already heard that the van would be arriving after us, as their trip from our hotel at San Romano to Piza (a twenty minute train ride) took five hours by satnav, including an interesting trip on crumbling roads up a nearby mountain.  We decided to book a table for us all before they arrived, only to find that the hotel’s restaurant was closed for the evening. They did however recommend a local restaurant. 

Rather than waiting for a shower and the arrival of our clean clothes we decided to set out on our bikes to find this restaurant.  With limited knowledge of Italian we managed to follow the first part of the directions but it didn’t look right, so after asking a few passers-by we located a very nice Chinese restaurant instead, where the owner even offered to keep an eye on our bikes so that we could eat inside. 

At the end of the meal Father Michael had a quick look at the map, then decided that it was no longer needed so used it as a handkerchief!  I hope it wasn’t a reflection on my navigation and choice of route.  As we were only a short distance from our hotel we decided that the quickest option was to ride back.  This meant we wouldn’t need to re-pack the van to fit the bikes in, and gave the added bonus of avoiding further upset for Malcolm after his grueling satnav misadventure. We couldn’t find bike lights so Malcolm and Denese drove the van just behind us, with hazard lights flashing. 

Wednesday, 22nd June

Today’s journey took us from Siena through some stunning towns in Tuscanny.   Buonconvento then through the classic Tuscan scenery of striped fields and vineyards to San Quirico and Castiglione d’Orc.

We didn’t meet any pilgrims here but we did see two chaps in a van who were running biking tours and holidays. They were doing a photoshoot and blazing a trail of dust up a track in their Transit so we stopped to chatOn hearing that Fr Michael came from the Emerald Isle, one of the chaps asked if he could record a message in Gaelic to his Irish ex-girlfriend.  Fr Michael of course obliged and did a piece to camera (phone).  The video was supposed to say that he still loved her and sent his best regards.  Not “having the Gaelic” and from seeing Fr Michael’s cheeky grin I’m not sure that's what the message actually said!

The temperature was rising to an uncomfortable 38degC and our hotel for the night was some distance off the route, there being no nearby accommodation available.  So we needed to finish a bit earlier to load the van and start the one hour drive We cut the journey short at the town of Radicofani instead of going all the way to Acquapendente as originally planned.  On the map it seemed easy to find so we spread out according to our preferred pace.  Only Mick Claridge saw the final left-turn and the rest of us missed it and nearly went off down the hill to somewhere completely different.  With only three working phones between us all we just managed to make contact and avoid subjecting Malcolm to another wild goose chase!  (Note to self: Next time don’t leave the Vodafone SIM cards to the last minute!)

Thursday, 23rd June

Today’s plan was to ride along the Via Francigena from Acqua Pendente to Sutri, then branch off five miles to our accommodation at the Monastery of San Vincenzo in nearby Bassano Romano.  For such a short detour we decided to ride it rather than loading bikes and riders into the van.  We originally considered starting at Radicofani where we had left off yesterday, so as not to miss out any of the route.  But we realised that would probably mean too great a distance for the day so a short van ride was in order.  Logistics determined that a van-start was much easier than a van-finish so we instead started from Acqua Pendente to enable this.  The route led us along Lake Bolsena and by 11am the temperature had soared to 41degC so we looked down every side-road for a track that led to the lake. 

Eventually we found a hotel driveway and discretely rode to the furthest point on their lakeside property where a paddle in the cooling water was very welcome.

We chose the town of Montefiascone as our first meeting point for the van to meet us for lunch.  Having discussed and marked this on Malcolm’s book of route maps that I had printed before the trip, the plan was to arrive (either by van or bikes) find a suitable spot (shady car park of a church usually fits the bill well) then text details to the others

The bikes arrived first and we found a church right on our route so we texted Denese in the van and waited.  It was then that I regretted my earlier quip that we would meet at “Monte-fiasco”.  

Malcolm and Denese visited every church in the town (we’re fairly sure they were in the right town) but could not find us. We even texted the latitude and longitude co-ordinates from my iPhone compass app, which Malcolm could key into his satnav. This took them to a church, but unfortunately not the church where we were.  So we used the spare hour for a siesta on a shady wall, before abandoning the meet-up and taking a second lunch-hour to find food ourselves.  You may have heard Fr Michael mention the mantra we used to spur ourselves on, determined to ride it all without the van.  So the phrase “there is no van!” once again took on a different meaning!  It really is tricky to meet-up in unknown places, and easy to get frustrated at these mix-ups, especially in the heat.  Mostly we kept our cool and with hindsight we were meant to take two hours break in the middle of such a searing hot day.

The second stop at Cura was easier to find as we had chosen an exact intersection between two numbered roads. It was equipped with a fountain and nearby bar - for which we were very grateful. In view of the time we decided to take the van for the remaining twelve miles.  Fr Michael wisely did so to preserve his strength for the following and final day.  

The others rode on to Surti and then to the Monastery of San Vincenzo Bassano Romano for the night, where we practised riding in formation for our ride into Rome.

Friday, 24th June
Well today is The Day.  

The final push for our journey to Rome!

Now that we are this far South the temperature is very hot, almost too hot to walk in, let alone cycle The advantage of cycling is the you do make your own breeze which helps with cooling.   See view from Monastero san Vincenzo back towards Sutri and our route.

Today started at 41degC so we were very grateful for the steady downward incline, happy to coast at 10 or 15 mph for maximum cooling.  By the time we had covered the eight miles back to the Via Francigena route near Surti we were at a more tolerable 32degC.

Being so near to Rome we experienced the meaning of “all roads lead to Rome.” The tarmac roads are all very busy around here, some to the point of being dangerous, as the crazy Italian traffic funnels into Rome.  The only alternative was gravel and dirt tracks high in the hills and we were in no mood for serious climbing in this heat, it felt like a sauna and here’s the evidence.

So we stuck to the tarmac, and when that became dangerous a nearby resident who was filling his pool was able to warn us, so we had a big detour adding another 6 miles.   

Once we had worked out our detour west into the town of Cesano we updated Malcolm and Denese on our new lunch ETA at La Storta. 

Lunch was also a good time to locate the Carmelite Casa Generalizia in Rome where we would be greeted, with the help of a phone call to Fr Martin back home, and we were kindly given their address and phone number.

The Via Francigena route took us right to Vatican City, but the one-way system forced us anti-clockwise instead.  We arrived at St Peter’s square after our tour of Rome, just as the bells were chiming.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve actually arrived!!  We got right into St Peter’s Square with our bikes, so we thought they deserved a picture too for all the punishment they have suffered to get us here!

Light was fading fast!

Then we set about finding the Carmelites.  We had an address but no maps or knowledge of Italian, and Rome is only the second largest city in Europe, so “how hard can it be?” We asked some soldiers and they were a great help, but could only get us so far then we had to ask again.  We learned a great navigation trick by noticing that bus stops had maps By now Malcolm and Denese had found the Carmelites, and time was running out so they very kindly sent one of their parishioners on a scooter to guide us to the Basilica of St Teresa of Avila.  We were greeted by Fr Dan, the General Ordinate, and kindly provided with cold beer and pizza while we chatted, what a fantastic welcome! 

Fr Dan was free that evening, so was able to join us for dinner.  Since there were no spare seats in the van Mick Claridge and I decided to ride the seven miles to our hotel.
We needed lights as it was getting dark now, and could only find Mick’s front helmet-mounted light and I already had my rear light attached.  So we rode “in tandem”On the way we were treated to another view of St Peter’s Basilica from the square.

After a quick shower and change we all went for a meal with Fr Dan, where among other things Fr Michael could catch up on news from the Carmelite community in Nigeria where they had first met.

So all in all it was a very memorable end to an epic journey!

Mike Burton

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Updates from Malcolm

Welcome All, and at last a reliable internet connection. 
We can now show you what really did occur on THAT epic journey !

 Monastery at  Santurio Oropa
It was in the clouds as it was high up the mountain and drizzled on the day we left

For example when we were at the Monastery we had an evening meal which was fantastic. A corn with cheese starter followed by Trout and vegetables then a desert. Others had steaks. All washed down with beer !!  They really should have sampled the local wines (Just see what they missed)!!  We cannot expect too much I suppose.  They really are all kids still at heart. They fall off their bikes and laugh it off after a wince.   Though Fr Michael assures us his mishap was caused by a stone in a puddle!


When they come back to the van they want their biking 'mummy' (Denese) and ask her for extra massage time in the evening, but she is wise!

 Denese and her angelic boys!

 A few antics as we traversed the St Bernard Pass:

We discovered that Mick Claridge has not got the hang of his Go Pro camera.  It takes videos and he has been turning it off when in fact he has turned it on !!  So a few embarrasing moments there!

A very neat derriere Mick!

Malcolm 'snowballing the aliens'

 the remains of the 'fight'

Denese taking it all in her stride!

At the top of the St Bernard Pass
Meeting with some fellow pilgrims (Tim and friend who were walking to Rome)

Pleased to have made it to the highest point!

Starting the descent down and 27 miles of hairpin bends!

At a Via Francigena stopping point

 Awaiting Mike Carney and his taxi

Denese points out you need Guiness for Iron & Strength
Fr Michael admits she is right

 Observed by Mike Carney who took her advice -- for once !!

Did you wonder how they managed to get bikes, spare bike frames and wheels, tool kits, food supplements and sports drinks, personal belongings (not to mention six pilgrims) into the van?

Malcolm is looking perplexed as he can't work it out either !!

 Surprise, Surprise !!  Visitors from St Joseph's
Denese's mum, Mary, Maura and Anne join us unexpectedly

 Fr Michael telling a few of his Irish jokes

Couldn't you sometimes want to throttle them. Well here is the first attempt. 
They thought Mary wanted a hug and started singing "I'm in heaven"

Other guests start joining in -- much to the annoyance of the owner, 
then the staff join us and say thank you !!


The ladies were supposed to leave us here 
. . . but we have no chance

We tried to loose them whilst taking them on an tour of Puccini's villa

Do not always rely on SATNAVS !!!  
We were led to the top of Mount Pisa and not OPisa itself. 
This is what we found when we got there !!

See how fit and active our pilgrims are at the start of the day!

Practicing for that all important ride into Rome


At the Carmelite Monastery in Rome
Greeted by one of Fr Michael's proteges (Fr Danny) in Nigeria who now works at HQ

Finally arrival back at St Joseph's
and a warm welcome with Mary's banner - made from glitter paint and floor mops!

Malcolm Johnstone