Cycle diary (part 3 of 3) - Southampton to Assisi

Day 9 - Cascina (just east of Pisa - 130 miles)

Our toughest day so far. Morning = constant up + down over the steep headlands of the Ligurian coast in searing heat... after 5 hours of this we were wishing for the Mont Ventoux. Then when I tried to find a flatter road right on the coast I only succeeded in wasting over an hour in the early afternoon and adding about 10 miles to our journey. More important was the time wasted. We eventually had to double back. Felt so sorry for Pete with his painful ribs. He could have really torn strips off me, but instead he simply said that I had done so well navigating for 8 days, I was bound to make a bad choice at some point and not to worry. Now there's a true friend, and boy did I need one right at that moment. Self-confidence very low.

The intense heat required drastic action...

This cock-up of mine would, however, have a serious knock on effect for us later in the day. Once we got onto flatter roads I basically got my head down on the front and we pushed as hard as we could for the remainder of the afternoon + early evening, just making the one stop of any length in about 6 hours riding. When we did make that stop at a Lidl to get supplies (as we so often did during the 10 days as a whole), I nearly collapsed when I got off the bike... heat exhaustion + dehydration + guilt for what I'd messed up earlier making me push on longer than I should have without stopping. I slumped to the floor, hyperventilating and started retching... an empty stomach, so nothing came. It's a feeling I've had before and know that it does wear off once you get fluids + energy back into you. After initially checking I wasn't going to completely expire on him, Pete went in to do his shopping and let me recover in my own time... 10 mins. later I went in and joined him in the cool of the supermarket... some drinking yoghurt, cereal bars and iced tea later and I felt I could just about get on the bike again. 30 mins. riding later and I was on the front flying again... a good thing too, as we still had lots of miles to do.

My favourite photo of the whole trip: Pete caught unawares in Pisa after an afternoon of hard riding (he says he was posing! Yeah, right! :-)

Tonight we basically pushed on as far as we could into the night, eventually totalling 130 mls for the day by 9.30pm - we should have done about 140 and so had to cancel our planned accommodation again and find somewhere else to stay. This we ended up doing east of Pisa when it was getting dark, eventually finding a lovely B&B "chambres d'hôtes"-style off the beaten track, where we were welcomed in with open arms by the owner, a very interesting bloke who gave us a heart-warming discount.

But our adventures have left us with a bit of a "mountain" to climb on the last day: well in excess of 150 miles, possibly over 160 if we are unable to take the direct road to Perugia and on to Assisi which looks like a dual carriageway on the map, but could be a "no go" for cyclists. This would require us to zig-zag through the Tuscany hills. We'll see... but hey, it's the last day. When a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do....!! :-)

Day 10 - Assisi (164 miles)

Pre-departure on our final day.

WHAT A DAY!! Pete was certainly "up for it" this morning. Once I had led us through some fiddly easterly roads into a headwind for a couple of hours, Pete went on the front (about time too!) on the long straight road to Siena. After my exertions the day before (+ this morning), I had a real job keeping up with him. But I could understand what he was doing... we had a VERY long day ahead of us and it was a good idea to try and get as many miles under our belts in rapid time while we could in the morning. And we did... much more so than on the previous 2 days. However, once we got past Siena, the roads got more hilly again as we zig-zgged through the Tuscany hills, at times reminiscent of the North Wales hills that the 2 of us know so well. Beautiful, quiet roads, but slower progress. 

Pete got to see what he considered a typically Italian scenic view (lines of conifers leading up to hilltop settlements, rolling fields, etc...). Time for a photo...

... and here it is.

Then we decided to see if we could go the direct way to Perugia + beyond... No luck. The dual carriageway marked on the map now had the status of a motorway. However, we did chance our arm for a few miles, given than we were desperate to try and get to Assisi before it got too dark. But there was just so little room at the side of the road for us to ride, otherwise I think we would have persevered and saved ourselves well over an hour. As it was, we came off at Perugia and it was then down to me + the GPS on my phone to find the most direct way to Assisi that didn't take the expressway. Not an easy task, given that for much of the last 10 miles we rode in darkness on unlit country roads without adequate lights on our bikes. I have to thank Pete for his encouragement + support during these final miles. I realised I was putting him through the mill, especially as he was having even more trouble than I was to see the road and his ribs were still causing him much discomfort. But he was all for us pushing on to Assisi and making sure we got there on the day we'd said we'd get there, rather than compromising and staying the night in a hotel nearer Perugia, even if it meant arriving after 10pm (which is what happened).

Those prayers I mentioned a few days ago worked their magic again... once we eventually got to our destination and found the street that contained our planned B&B in the lower part of Assisi (St. Mary of the Angels) a couple of miles outside the old town on the hill, I immediately noticed a youngish man starting to pull down a window shutter. He saw us and called out in excellent English, "Is that James?" With buckets full of relief instantly coursing through my veins I breathlessly shouted back "YES!!" "Oh, we were so worried about you!" They had waited for us all evening, but were about to go back to where they lived 4 miles away in the hills, having given up hope that we were going to ever turn up. I had tried to phone them during the day to warn that we would be late, but the number I had taken from their website was unfortunately no longer accurate. It turned out that the husband was a Music teacher + choral director. When we walked into their apartment B&B we were welcomed by the gentle sounds of Glen Gould playing Bach's "Goldberg Variations" on cd, the piece originally written for an insomniac patron of Bach to give him something to play whilst awake during his long, sleepless nights. Somehow I don't think we'll have any trouble sleeping tonight!!

Rest day (6 miles by bus + 1 mile or so walking)

Our body clocks still being attuned to early rising, we were both fully awake well before 6am, 2 hours before breakfast. So we pottered around in the bedroom, did a few odd jobs mending bits of gear + clothing, wrote a bit in our journals, and started to take stock of what we'd achieved... but to be honest our brains were pretty much frazzled, so we mainly just chilled.

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.

Inside the Basilica, the chapel where St. Clare received the religious habit from St. Francis, around which was built the Basilica.

After a long, relaxed breakfast we ambled down the road to the bus stop that would take us up the hill into the old town of Assisi. We took our time strolling through the town, visiting some of the many churches on the way, admiring the lovely old brick work of the dwellings that lined the narrow, winding streets, both of us surprised + delighted that there seemed to be relatively few people around. Some photos and a smoked ham + cheese panini later (just for me. Pete wasn't feeling hungry) we headed for a bus stop to make the short journey back to our dwelling and a 2 hour afternoon siesta, after which we both seemed pretty much back to our usual selves, though I was soon to be in for a surprise...

Pete Smith, Man of Action!!

The Basilica of St. Francis in the late afternoon.

Two weary, but happy travellers.

Inside the Basilica.

A little bike maintenance in the cellar of our B&B.

One of Pete's causes célèbres during the 10 days as a whole was the invasion of McDonalds across Europe, so imagine my surprise when he suggested that rather than sit and order a pizza in the noisier central part of lower Assisi, surrounded by jabbering tourists + pilgrims, a pizza that we could end up waiting a good while for, he'd rather that we buy a quick carbohydrate (+ fat!) take out fix from the local McDonalds, and sit outside in the cool, drizzly evening air to eat it. I laughingly agreed, so long as I had his permission to take a photo of him in this incriminating situation underneath the McDonalds sign. Deal!


Departure day (23 miles)

Another early rise well before 6am, but this time Pete came up with a stroke of genius. He suggested that we ride up into Assisi before breakfast to
a) visit the town when it was at nearly empty altogether with minds more receptive than they were the day before
b) take in San Damiano just outside old Assisi (a Franciscan monastery on the site of the first Franciscan community founded by St. Francis + his followers)
c) give our legs a stretch before the ride to Perugia airport
d) and perhaps most importantly, cycle up to the Basilica of St. Francis, because I had always said that for me our ride would end at the door of the Basilica in the old town and we hadn't actually ridden up to it yet.

So at 6a.m. we set off up the hill on our bikes. It was a lovely, lovely experience and I got some very nice photos.

Thank you, Pete.

Approaching old Assisi by bike at 6a.m.

San Damiano monastery

A statue of St. Francis in prayer at San Damiano.

The Basilica in the early morning.

After breakfast back at the B&B we headed for the airport about 6-7 miles away... all in all, the journey back to Southampton wasn't as smooth as we would have liked: a few "jobsworths" in Perugia airport and Stansted airport railway station did their best to make our last day a miserable one, but fortunately there were also some very helpful people about, e.g. those that let us put our bikes on 2 coaches (down below with the suitcases): Stansted to Liverpool St. Station in London (National Express) and Victoria to Southampton (Greyhound coaches). We eventually made it back to So'ton at about 8 p.m. to a hero's welcome and a well-deserved glass of champagne from Br. Francis. Ouf!!!


3 days later Pete rode 193 miles in one day back from his sister's in Andover to his own house in Birkenhead. Talk about tough as old boots!!!!!! :-)


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