Towards the eternal city

It’s hard to believe that everything that has happened this week occurred in just seven days. It could very well be two or three weeks, at least that’s how it seems to me. Maybe I just visited three parallel universes and now amazed, I inspect those colorful bits of past in kaleidoscope of experiences.

But let’s start from the beginning. I was looking forward to this week already when I was just in Hodonin’s library, reading Italy travel guide and with an open atlas and phosphorous highlighter I was constructing my route: after Florence, my itinerary left all logic behind, dumped in a ditch alongside a road which meandered seemingly aimlessly through picturesque Tuscany and amid the castles and vineyards I planned to forget where I actually head to.

Tuscany’s colors

It really wasn’t easy to keep pushing myself further – once I got into the hills of Chianti wine region, that stretches south of Florence, my speed lowered to ten kilometers per hour and every once in a while I stopped to admire by those magnificent slopes full of yellowed rows of vines, olive trees, stone churches and its neatly combed fields. Medieval, beautifully preserved villages (like San Gimignano I visited on Monday), fully made of stone, proudly showcase themselves in the afternoon sun on pedestals of inaccessible hills, and I imagine all the battles, that had been fought for this beautiful country and how I actually don’t have anything to complain about in comparison to those soldiers in heavy armor because I have the lowest gear and they’ve got just a tired horse.

But I got tired as well. On Friday, when I rushed to Florence, I started to feel really sick after all these hills and I had to take my medication. And on Tuesday, I had this great idea to take a turnoff to Montalcino, a town known mainly for two reasons:

  1. They make an exceptional red wine there – Brunello di Montalcino – which I personally rank amongst my favorites, together with Primitivo from Salento and Tuscany’s Montepulciano.
  2. It towers nearly 1000 feet above the surrounding landscape, formed by the valley of the river Orcia.

It wouldn’t be me if the first, irrational reason, hadn’t prevailed over the other. So I went off the state highway number two – the so-called Via Cassia – and began climbing up the hills with the prospect of delicious alcoholic intoxication.

After few light years passed (my speed didn’t exceed 8 km/h), I have reached Montalcino only to discover, that my precious Brunello starts at 20€. With my tights on fire and slightly sour mood I just took a nice picture and that had to do for me.

The day of first exhaustion

It was just two o’clock in the afternoon, some about two hundred kilometers were remaining to Rome and so I decided to find a supermarket, buy a cheap bottle of wine, set a camp soon, cook a big dinner and make it nice for myself – caress my slapped hurt soul a little, when it didn’t get its Montalcino.

Although the hills I’ve been passing through remember Marcus Aurelius, they’ve never heard of a supermarket and there were gaps of 15-20km between the villages, which meant a three hour ride, considering my exhausted pace and so it was already five, the darkness was descending on the country, I’ve run out of water, a storm was closing in, the wind grew stronger, it was suddenly colder and I’ve driven into a forest which is like the worst thing to happen in the evening because it’s humid in the forest and a lot of noises and I really dislike sleeping there.

Maybe I could put up with all this, only I hadn’t got The Wine and moreover! neither chocolate and so, naturally, I started to think about comfy slippers and warmth of home and I wanted to ditch everything, I broke the fundamental commandment of a content journey: ‘Thou shalt eat well,’ and with an empty stomach, in the cold and humid forest my enthusiasm from the adventure was sliding down an uncompromisingly steep exponential.

Even in those moments, the Spirit Of The Journey can show its merciful face and when I finally find a good spot for the night, it starts to rain precisely in the moment I crawl into the ready-made tent.

I need to reward myself, and so I cook a two-course dinner – a chinese soup and garlic couscous – then I turn on my phone and read encouraging messages from my friends which affect my slightly narcissistic ego like a kilogram of chocolate would do for my mood and it is clear that I ride on – what else?

It rains and pours at night and the tent rattles in the wind, but I sleep calmly as the baptism by fire already took place in Hungary. The rain continues also in the morning and so I consider staying on the spot, reading books, but I am running out of water again and forecast says it’s gonna rain for another two days. I pack and unpack everything twice, depending on how determined I am at the moment to march into the rain or how cold I am, but at the end, I beg the heavens for just ten minutes of lighter rain to have time to pack the tent as I want to go on.

I had written here that everything is just a word and a thought and so it happens that the universe heard me out and I got my ten minutes after half an hour. Unfortunately, not a minute more – when I was almost finished, going to pull out the last pin, I found myself again unwillingly starring in this hideous aqua park advert, the wind blew mightily and I chased the tent across the field, loosing the pin in the process.

Although the rain was being poured from buckets (apparently), it was out of the question to build the tent again – after all, everything got wet anyway. I comforted myself by the fact that I’m prepared for rain and I was actually looking quite forward to try my waterproof gear in action. “The Action” lasted about five minutes for my pants, ten for my shoes and my jacket which indicates higher water column resistance than my tent does, followed almost immediately. I understand that even “waterproof” is a relative term.

Screw the plans! – I descend down to Via Cassia as fast as I can. The water is everywhere, the rain is dense, I’m unable to see the road and my brakes refused obedience after they’ve got wet, which is what I begged them not to do, when I approached a sign stating that there’s a 14% descend ahead.

On SS2 I bravely sacrifice myself to the rain, having this idea of getting somewhere warm, maybe to the sea – and sea, that’s such a beautiful thing that it can’t rain over there and I will recuperate there, get dry and everything’s gonna be alright.

Via Francigena

But the providence wanted a bridge to fall during the storm and I had to turn off the SS2 once again to a deviation trough Radicofani, a village that, of course, lied on the biggest hill around there. I just don’t get how come that in a region, where the hills are not higher than 600 meters, the road can climb in such a steep murderous pace for more than two hours, but for the route to Radicofani that’s just the way it is. When I got to the ridge, the storm was just culminating, lightnings flashed all around me, in strong winds, the heavy raindrops were pummeling me from all sides and I couldn’t hold my direction straight in the wind, finding myself in the opposite lane every once in a while, with my wet clothes drooping sadly on my body like defeated sails of Captain’s Scott’s ships.

Meanwhile, as I was getting showered, I was considering violating all my principles and decided to spend ten euros for any place where I can dry and get a shower. As the storm grew, so did my willingness to spend the money and it gradually grew through 20€, 40€ and then anything, just to get myself out those ‘wet sails’.

When I finnaly arrived in the village, there was naturally nobody outside and so I tried to arouse sympathies in front of local grocery store. Futilely. I was referred to Hotel La Torre – being in such a desperate situation, I decided to use its services – only to find that it was closed and nobody answered the doorbell.

It just happens so, that the journey does what it wants, and me, as a resigned pilgrim, I can only kindly accept its gifts. Led by its invisible hand I found a bar with a symbol of walking stick, which, as I remembered, indicates pilgrimage to Rome. In the bar I asked for lodging, bartender picked up the phone and in less than a minute a smiling monk appeared and without any questions asked he opened the door on the side of St. Peter’s Church, leading to a dormitory for pilgrims on the Via Francigena to Rome. And so I became a real pilgrim.

It was an amazing place – a little mystical, in particular by the nearness of the sound of the church’s bell,  omnipresent mist and cold stones – but in the first place: possessing a hot shower, a comfortable bunk beds and a kitchen! I decided to enjoy the comforts and stay, cooked a great lunch-dinner-breakfast and washed my clothes.

In the wet and cold, it didn’t really fancy getting dry and so I spent a half of the next day drying them in the oven. Although it seemed like quite a good idea, the process required a lot of concentration and attention which is what one of my cycling jerseys didn’t get enough of and along with the pair of socks that I’ve forgotten in Lugo, my journey has its second victim.

The eternal city

Despite sending dozens of mails, nobody answered my couch surfing requests and so it didn’t look very hopeful as far as my weekend in Rome was concerned. On Thursday’s night at ten I finally got an affirmative answer and regardless of the weather forecasts I’ve set my alarm for six in the morning, determined to make it to Rome the next day. And full of enthusiasm I really did (all of those 160 bloody kilometers): before the dawn I’ve already passed the valley of river Orcia, at lunch I’ve flewn through east end of Devil’s plain and then I slipped through the Saturday mountains and finished my Christian pilgrimage.

A book should be published about the weekend in the city over Tiber – the millions of scents, the rush, the life, Sunday’s service in Santa Maria del Popolo, dozens of kilometers in crooked forgotten streets and evening contemplation under the Angel’s castle, where I write this article – that’s just a fraction of all those emotions I’m literally bathing in. And it’s maybe the quantity of all this, the lack of an empty moment, all those wonderful things that crave my attention – that’s maybe why I had to force myself a little into writing this article. And forcing myself into anything is one of those things I promised myself to get rid of, therefore, this is where I stop. The dot.

P.S.: i thought that the Italian traffic and especially the Roman one will be a nightmare, but I became to quite like it. In the North, we might be tied by all those rules so much that there is no room for  humaneness and pragmatic solutions. – The red lights mean “look twice and then go” – As far as the traffic is concerned, the intuition sovereignly wins in Italy.

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