Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Via Francigena - Cycling a pilgrim trail from Siena To Rome

Stretched out between England and Italy, in specific canterbury and rome, lies an old pilgrim trail called the Via Francigena. The route was poinerred by Sedric the Serious, a 9th C. clergyman on his way to be ordained Archbishop by the Pope in Rome. This would lead Sedric on an amazing journey that would be become in later years known as the Via Francigena or 'Road from France' as it principally connected North Europe with Italy. At various points there were Inns and places to lodge for the night, whilst today the route is even marked with sign posts indicating the direction to Rome. This makes tings much easier when you are travelling the route as at points it can become quite unfamiliar in whcih direction you are supposed to be headed. Well it was with little more than a whim, 2 mountain bikes and a change of clothes that I headed out to greet the old road and find my way back to Rome through overgrown woodland and alongside streams, past medievil towns and fortresses and even along an ancient roman road (Via Cassia). This is that story...

Day 1 – Siena to San Quirico d'Orcia

Piazza del Campo - Siena
Having gotten up at the crack of dawn and still not had the time to fully prepare the bikes, it was a bit rushed my encounter with my companion for the trip, Peter Stokes of Australia. None the less, we managed to fit the racks onto our mountain bikes, load up the bags and make it to the main train station in Rome (Termini) in time for the 9:15 service to Siena.

On our way to Siena I realised that I had packed far too much normal clothes, as I was to find out I only really needed one set of clothes to change into once the day was done. Nevermind, Peter seemed happy with his high-tech cycling vest and was even happier when I lent him my spare set of gloves.
Sign post to show the way

Upon arrival in Siena, we quickly made our way through the city center towards the main square Piazza del Campo. What a sight! At first it seemed that the square was sinking as everything around it was raised up around it. This was not the only surprise. We also cycled past the head offices of the debt ridden bank "Monte di Paschi" which made me laugh as it had been in the news quite a bit recently. After taking some photos we left the main square to find the trail that would lead us back to Rome.

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At first I was a little hesitant about following a route that i didnt personally know but shortly after leaving the town center we found a sign with an arrow saying Via Francigena. Perfect.  This made the  start easier and would end up helpinig us immensely, especially when Peter decided he wanted to follow his Garmin (the whole route is downloadable) and led us the wrong way.  After a quick doubleback, we found ourselves cycling along at a brisk pace towards our stop for the first night San Quirico d'Orcia. This wasnt to be reached however until we had climbed up to Montalcino to try the famous red wines which come from the area. Definately worth the detour, thanks Peter!

Distance:  50kms
Time: 4 hours
Terrain: Mostly road
Profile: Flat

Day 2 - San Quirico d'Orcia to Bolsena
Tuscan Hills

Being our first full day cycling and having had a good nights rest, we made the most of the morning by getting going early. Shortly after leaving the town, we discovered the thermal baths of the nearby Bagno Vignoni which still have boiling water bubbling up from underground. Continuing our journey on towards Radicofani would lead us through still more of beautiful Tuscan countryside. Although the town was high up on a hill, we spent most of the morning climbing up to get there, its views over the landscape were astounding. Especially as we were nearing the border with Lazio which meant soon we would be leavign beautiful tuscany behind us.
Bolsena - Medievil 

As we neared our final stop for the day, it was a perfect chance to have a quick bit to eat and snooze in the park of San Lorenzo Nuovo before heading downhill to the lake Bolsena. The town of Bolsena is remarkable. It seems that the courtyard which is protected behind the old fort hasn't changed since the medievil age, nestled as it is between the church and city walls. The Lake Bolsena is also worth noting although the waters edge wasn't enticing enough to warrant a swim. Besides we had just finished our first full day and we were ready for bed.

Distance: 67 kms
Time: 8 hours
Terrain: Mostly road
Profile: Hilly

Day 3 - Bolsena to Bracciano
View overlooking the Lake Bolsena

What a day our third and final full day would turn out to be. Apart from cycling from one lake to another, we would also be passing through sections of the Via Francigena that required serious determination and courage as at points the trail would just disappear. All said, it was by far the most rewarding leg of our bike ride along this pilgrim road to Rome as it would leave us a stones throw from our objective.

Shortly after leaving our agriturismo "La Gazzetta", little more than a refuge on the banks surrounding the lake, we found ourselves immersed in the undergrowth of the woods that surround the lake. The trail would loop back on itself and run alongside little
Biscuits in the town square
streams, down slopes and then up them and took us quite a while to through. In hindsite, we could have avoided this sectione if we were in rush, but it was worth the extra time to get to Montefiascone.

Having managed to get to the town square which wasn't all that easy, we stopped for a morning tea and biscuits. Sitting on the steps of the fountain in the square, I got a sense of what it meant to be a local. As did Peter by the broad grin he had on his face, having finished the almond biscuits I had bought straight out the oven at a nearby bakery.

Peter leading us through a field
The second part of the day would take us through farmers fields and the like, pushing our faith in our maps and ourselves further than ever before. It was during one of these episodes that we actually lost the track and only managed to find it thanks to Peters Garmin. As it turned out, we had simply gone past the turning point and when we retraced our steps, I was surprised to see that the route we had been following had now become nothing more than a tiny path. At points we were asking ourselves if that really was the way!

The trail would soon join up to a road which in turn would lead us onto a more major road that took us straight to Viterbo. Admittedly, the difference between cycling in Tuscany and cycling in Lazio is huge. There were no more quite countryside passes as we had become used to in Tuscany and Viterbo was like a modern day city, full of cars and very busy. We did however manage the old part of the city and stop for an ice-cream.

The final part of the day was spent cycling between Viterbo and Vetralla, where we would stop for lunch,
Lake Bracciano
and climbing of the ridge that seperated Sutri from the Lake Bracciano. The town which we would lodge at was Trevignano Romano and was a nice place to stop for swim. We were introduced to a nice B&B by the owner of a bar along the waterfront called "La Vigna Rosa" which would serve the best breakfast we had had the whole trip!

Distance: 74 kms
Time: 8 hours
Terrain: Off-road and Road
Profile: Undulating

Castle at Bracciano
Day 4 - Bracciano to Rome

After having gotten up with the best intentions to get going asap for Rome, we decided over breakfast that we would skip the rather dull bike ride in favour of the train. This turned out to be the right decision as I had drunk too much wine the night before and was in no mood for more cycling. To be honest, the distance seemed too much although I have subsequently cycled the final leg and its totally do-able. Perhaps its just not that interesting.

We still managed to see the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi Castle in the town of Bracciano however!

Distance: 35kms
Time: 4 hours
Terrain: road
Profile: Flat