Second last day added to blog
To followers – the blog entries can now all be see at https://billberryride.com/mamil-champions-cycling-for-change-in-the-pacific/
This is the page on the main post site on the MAMIL ride
Not quite such a cold start from Delegate today, but it was a few kilometres before our fingers thawed out. Once they had we were able to operate the binoculars to observe a flock of shelducks helping themselves to a crop of some sort. The morning sun shone on this beautiful rolling upland grazing country for half an hour before a greying sky threatened. Immediately crossing the border to Victoria cleared fields gave way to magnificent mountain ash forest.. Lyrebirds and black wallabies dashed across the road. The rain came and went and came again. Lois again did us proud with hot and spicy lentil soup for lunch which we enjoyed with the added benefit of watching a large machine demolishing a couple of trees killed in the bush fire that ravaged many square kilometres of these forests recently. From 750 metres at Delegate we climbed (a total of 1129 metres) and descended about three or four or more times over 126 kilometres today to the Club Hotel ($30 each for the night) at Orbost at 34 metres above sea level.
It was minus 4 for our departure from Cooma with a quite thick freezing fog. We climbed up out of the fog at about 950 metres into a sunny day on the Monaro High Plain with a breeze of about 18 kms per hour behind us! At our highest point (1100 metres) we had a grand view of the Snowy Mountains complete with a good dusting of snow. We descended to about 800 metres for hot coffee and traditional pink iced fruit bun from Cooma provided by our wonderful sag wagon driver Lois. After climbing to 1000 metres again we had a thrilling 250 metre descent to the valley of the McLaughlin River. It might well have been named such because the landscape does look a bit like parts of Scotland. In Bibbenluke Lois spoilt us with hot bowls of bean casserole. After a pretty quick coffee in Bombala, we raced against the failing light for the Delegate Pub with a magnificent sunset taking our attention away from the road. Very well fed we are all off early to bed to recuperate from 140 kms and 1583 metres climbed. Tomorrow will be another big day.
First two days done and they were fabulous. The wind wasn’t at our back on the first day, from Canberra to Captains Flat (73 kms and 811 vertical metres), but it died away and on the second to Cooma (103 kms and 1603 metres vertical) was hardly evident. The sun shone on the beauty of the tablelands nearly all the time.
“We saw for ourselves or Seven countries on 17 pounds”
16 April 1939 – Worcester to Oxford
The great idea was born one December evening after a Guide meeting when Berry (who was my Lieutenant) and I were sitting round the fire, as was our wont, gossiping. Suddenly I said “If anyone told me to give up my job, draw all my money out of the bank and go with them round Europe I’d go.” “Right” says Berry, “I’ll go.”
Ways and means were discussed, then followed three months of route planning, getting equipment together, obtaining customs tickets, getting all the buckshee literature and maps we could obtain and then we were ready.
We left Worcester on Sunday morning, the 16th April, in the rain, on second hand pushbikes, which we called Hannibal and Annabelle because we hoped they would cross the Alps. Anyhow, more often than not it was “Come up Horace”. It was raining and with our unaccustomed loads, consisting of camping equipment, stores and clothes we staggered rather than rode out of town. First accident, I omitted to tell Berry that the egg in my oilskin provision bag was not hard boiled.
Our first stop was half way up Fish Hill, where we ate our lunch praising the person who thought of putting a seat there.
We arrived at our destination, Oxford – in quite good time, but it took us a long time to find the Hostel in Jack Straw’s Lane, and an equally long time to get our equipment back on the bikes next morning. We liked the look of the town and decided to re-visit when we had more time to spare
16 April 2010 – Worcester to Oxford
Day one is done. It dawned clear, sunny and cold in Worcester, though of course Brian disputes the last adjective – he decided short nix were the go. We left the B & B well fuelled with a full English breakfast and wound our way through Worcester’s old streets lined with buckling half timber Tudor buildings. You think something is wrong with your glasses that makes the world all distorted, but the buildings really do have few straight lines.
We decided the official start was the cathedral and a lovely young Worcesterienne took our photo.
We had learnt a great deal about the cathedral from a lovely very old Worcesterienne the afternoon before, but what she couldn’t explain was why a sarcophagus was adorned with black swans a species of only terra australis completely unknown when these were carved.
This is Elgar country. Worcester is very keen to tell you he is theirs. But, with the larks singing high in the sunny sky above the flinty ploughed fields Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Arising” would have been the right musical accompaniment.
With a few navigation difficulties we got to Broadway for morning coffee at about 11:45. Fish Hill (about a 275 metre climb) wasn’t as bad as we were expecting, but for Philip it was a disappointment. He had to wheel his bike up having a flat at the bottom and both pumps on the bikes ahead of him a bit out of yelling distance. It was a valve problem not a puncture so, so far, the Continental Sport Contacts (32mm) have been puncture free and they do really roll well.
Lunch was at Blockley, an absolutely delightful Cotswald village folded into a little valley. We decided the pub’s beef pies were the best we’d ever eaten. A half of the local bitter washed them down nicely. At about 3.5% alcohol it’s not going to do much damage.
The rest of the day was up and down and round about. The country lanes do not follow Roman road routes. Banks of bright yellow and cream daffodils burst into our view around nearly every bend. Spring seems meant for cycling through England.
With a couple of unintended detours we made the Youth Hostel in Oxford a bit after 6:30 with 110kms on the clock. It was a longer day than planned. We think the 1939 riders, though pushing heavier bikes and lugging more gear, would have had the advantage of riding the main road which is shorter and less hilly and of course without navigation challenges. We decided we had to think seriously about the plan of averaging 100kms a day.
17 April 1939 Oxford to London
We took the road to London with the wind behind us, and made good time until Berry developed a slow puncture. Found the Great Ormond Street Hostel after coping with heavy traffic in town – right through Hyde Park. Thrilled to find many nationalities in the Y.H.A. – Danes, Germans, Hungarians, Canadians, etc. and just managed to cook and eat our supper in the shortest time ever 8.55 – 9pm.
17 April 2010 – Oxford to London
Once around the “Camera”, the original location of the Bodleian library, a visit to a bike shop for an extra pump so that Philip won’t have to push his bike again and then we are out of Oxford on a good smooth fast road for a few Ks. Morning coffee was at Watlington from an award winning deli. Brian was convinced that its marvellous collection of cheeses had added an extra flavour to the coffee. As we struggled up the very steep climb up onto the Chilterns about twenty Red Kites circled overhead. A few of them didn’t take kindly to a Buzzard in their patch and swooped him off. At the top of the hill a notice board informed us that these kites were close to extinction a few years ago. They are magnificent creatures.
A missed turn at Christmas Common (they have a Christmas shop there of course) meant pedalling back a few Ks to the lane that took us down a beautiful valley which led to the Thames. The hedgerows were still leafless which meant we could see through them into the fields as we sped along. The possibility of a Porsche rounding a bend between the hedgerows at 100kms occurred to us, but then we supposed that most Porsche owners would be taking care not to run into another one coming the other way so driving slowly enough to avoid us. In fact drivers here are hugely respectful of cyclists.
We’d been told that we could ride along the Thames Path so we crossed at a weir and lock at Millend, had lunch at the Flower Pot Inn and started along the path. Being mostly a dirt track and often very bumpy and with kissing gates to negotiate every few hundred metres it was very slow going, but picturesque. After about 10 kms we gave up and took to the roads again. At Slough we decided that the remaining Ks into London wouldn’t be much fun so we jumped on a train. The sun had brought out the Londoners and Hyde Park was crowded with vitamin D seekers. After the hostel in Oxford staying that night with John Dauth was very welcome luxury.
18 April 1939 – London
Next morning we took Berry’s bike to an old bloke who was deaf and almost blind to be mended and departed to find the German Embassy. I’d got the address ’99 Regent St.’ firmly fixed in my head, but on arrival found this to be the Belgian State Railways. The German Passport Office we later discovered to be 18 Belgrave Square – anyhow we drew a blank there, they couldn’t extend our visas – or should it be visae? Next to the C.T.C. H.Q. in Craven Hill, where we insured the models, and were provided with additional French customs tickest and a route out of London. We aimed to reach Canterbury that night but the road was hilly and Berry’s light and legs conked so we bed and breakfasted at Faversham – we aren’t properly run in yet I think. Anyhow we spun a tale about having changed all our money for French and got in for 2/6 each.
18 April 2010 – London – rest
A ride on the “Tate a Tate” ferry (it goes from the Tate Gallery to the Tate Modern) and a couple of hours trying to make sense of Francis Bacon and many other moderns filled the morning. The Soviet posters were really the only things that didn’t require too much contemplation.
We crossed the Millenium footbridge to St Paul’s. By chance there was a post Easter service of music and readings which Brian and I decided to observe – or were participating in it? Philip decided that would be too much for him so he took himself off to Westminster Abbey. He hasn’t said whether he participated in and worshipping activity there. The St Paul’s service involved a choir made up of two or three choristers from a number, maybe all, of the parishes of the diocese. We were treated to anthems from Scarlatti to Vaughan Williams and beyond. They produced a pretty good sound, but may well have been better listened too somewhere without the reverberating acoustics of the cathedral. In terms of volume, of the organ would might have satisfied the average rock concert goer and the finale from the Firebird sweet just might have appealed too to a person of such musical persuasion too.
19 April 1939 – Faversham to Dover
Canterbury the next morning, we were very impressed with town and Cathedral. Dover by two pip emma (2pm) where we had dinner on the beach, and then after cashing our first (1 pound) from the Letter of Credit, we found the Youth Hostel, which incidentally was the Y.M.C.A, and possessed a very affable warden.
19 April 2010 – London to Canterbury
So we are now behind the 1939 schedule. We are going to get further behind. The day after we flew into the UK a volcano in Iceland started shooting volumes of ash high into the sky. Unusual winds spread this over Europe and all air travel was suspended. We weren’t fast enough off the mark and could not get a booking on the ferry until 21 April so we will have two nights in Canterbury.
Today was another superb ride. We were initially below the North Downs. Black Headed gulls were hunting in the ploughed fields. The clack of Wood Pigeons wings erupted now and then. Chaffinches darted around the hedgerows and rabbits and pheasants shot across in front of us.
Our route took us up a 7% hill onto the Downs and then dipped and weaved its way to Canterbury. Navigation was again challenging. We swung Philip’s iPhone into action on a few occasions and think we will employ it more often in France once we have a simcard francais.
The hedgerows here have a few more leaves than north of London. They have been given severe square crew cuts I think rather like US Marines.
A highlight of the day was a truly superb steak and kidney pudding at the George in Newnham. I don’t think I’ve lost any weight yet!
20 April 2010 – Canterbury – rest
We had another chance to test cathedral acoustics. A school group was rehearsing in the knave of Canterbury Cathedral. Drums, electric guitar, saxophone and flute accompanied the choir. There wasn’t full accord amongst us on the quality of their product. It really does seem that cathedrals aren’t designed particularly for easy perception of sung words. They are very good for listening to spoken words either. Of course in earlier times the words were all latin and incomprehensible to most of the congregation anyway.
At the eastern end of the cathedral is a chapel dedicated to the remembrance of martyrs. Either side of the entrance there is a book with entries about martyrs through the ages. Both were open at a page describing the seven Melanesian Brothers who were killed attempting to settle a dispute in the Solomon Islands during the Tensions. There leader was one Robin Lindsay. I felt this a bit of a coincidence given my interest in finding a way to contribute to post conflict work in those islands.
20 April 1939 – Dover to Boulogne
Next morning we crossed via Townsend’s Ferry, after an unintelligible joke about ‘espionage’ from the French Customs’ Official on the Quay. The sea really was as calm as any of the millponds I’ve ever seen, and we made friends with the Purser, who provided me with ‘Motor Cycles’ to look at. We had an anxious moment when the bikes were disembarked by crane, but they landed, wheels under-most, with the luggage intact. Anyhow they must ‘renverser’ mine for the number, and then we were let loose on French soil, or rather French pave. It’s rolling country and a switch-backy road to Boulogne, and here I try my French. Berry insisted on my asking about the first person we saw for the whereabouts of the Youth Hostel. She thought we were in need of protection and stopped a Nun, who directed us to the pastor of the English Church – we side-tracked them and then found a gendarme to whom the Auberge de la Jeunesse was not something quite beyond his ken, and at length we found what proved to be a large School, the only occupants of which were about 40 Czech refugees, one lad played the accordion and spoke very food English. After a grand supper (soup, 2 sorts of cold meat, potatoes, biscuits and heaps of jam – for 7 francs) we went for a stroll, but decided to turn back after hearing a most gruesome howling, which afterwards turned out to be someone selling newspapers, and followed two lads with rucksacks, whom we suspected were English in search of the hostel, but when one asked me the way in excellent French it was too much, so we explained to their discomfiture we were English. Spent the rest of the evening round the stove, conversing in a mixture of English, French, Czech and German with the accordion player, a Czech spy, who had been released from Germany in return for a Nazi spy in Czechoslovakia, Madame Aubergiste, and the two English hitch hikers. 10 pm and ‘Good-nights’ all round, with instructions not to open our Dorm door or else we should find ourselves in Sudetenland. We later found out that the Czechs were going to Canada to learn farming, but the spy wanted a war so that they could get their country back.
21 April 2010 – Canterbury to Boulogne
Bright sun through the window of our room at Iffin Farm and the busy chaffinches woke us. Iffin Farm is a truly delightful place to stay just a few Ks outside Canterbury. Sarah is a dedicated and generous host and her roast chicken with, inter alia, mashed swede is superb. Crotchet, the dog, (they used have a Quaver) amused us including by relocating my helmet, but being a retriever he held it very delicately.
We left Canterbury in very cold air on the Pilgrims’ Way which was the start of a sign posted bike route to Dover so we rolled along with no navigational problems. The tiny village of Barfreston was on our route. It has a cute little Norman church and apparently very special carvings around the door. Its bell in a very old yew tree next to the north west corner is rung by a rope that passes into the church.
Ploughed fields in this chalk country are so white they seem to be dusted with snow. The wind off the North Sea made the temperature with the clouds building seem cold enough for the real thing.
We descended to Dover past its mighty castle. After following the red line for cyclists and checking in we had to stand in the car rows waiting to board the ferry. It was 9 degrees and windy and we were envious of the car passengers. There ought to be some arrangement for cyclists to shelter.
Dover’s white cliffs were as impressive as ever though whilst some swallows had been about earlier in the day there were no blue birds immediately evident as we pulled out into the Channel.
We felt pretty regal pedalling last down the ramp on to French soil after the madding crowd of cars, trucks and buses. I decided that we are kings of the road – three from the Orient. We eventually found our way out of Calais and followed a pretty windswept road south to Boulogne. Looking back across La Manche the white cliffs seemed much closer than 22 miles and it looks like a pretty easy swim – for a swimmer, that is, which I am not. I happened to see a French movie on the plane coming over about a Kurdish clandestine, as they are called in French, who decided swimming was the way to get to the UK.
We found the hotel in Boulogne recommended in the Lonely Planet guide to be pretty good value as was the menu at L’Humiot. Philip’s fish soup was superb – we all tried it!
21 April 1939 Boulogne to Abbeville
Next morning we took the road to Abbeville, first stop Montreuil, a queer old walled town approached by an awful winding up-hill pave road, which made us feel like a caravan approaching a hill town in India. Montreuil has a famous statue of ? in the market place, but not much to offer in the way of food. The cheese was stale and apples dear. No hostel was near our route that night so as the weather was good we decided to camp. Bought petrol for our Primus (Jean) at a country garage and they kindly allowed us to camp in their field. Spent a fairly comfortable but cold night, and departed after a visit of inspection from the owner, who remarked that we were provided ‘comme les soldats’. They seemed anxious to know how the international situation was affecting England, and pleased me mightily when Madame said my accent was ‘Assez bien’.
22 April 2010 Boulogne to Abbeville/Caours
An unnecessary climb out of Boulogne started the day. It was then quite straightforward to Etaples especially when we found a cycleway running with the main road. The 1914-18 war cemetery, on the way into Etaples, was an experience. You walk up to a monument and then, laid out below, are the thousands of head stones. Though we’d all seen pictures of these cemeteries we weren’t prepared for the reality. This whole region of course was the big battle ground and in the next war too. I wonder about the locals who have been through so much. I wonder about Bill and Berry riding through this country so soon after the first war and surely thinking about the possibility of the next.
Montreuil sur Mer is now a long way from the sea the estuary, having silted up over the centuries. It’s streets are still pave. We are so very thankful that we don’t have the many kilometres of pave that Bill and Berry had to ride. The bolts on their bikes must have needed tightening frequently. I had asked directions to a brasserie for cafe from someone who appeared to be a local and in a definite Scottish accent (!) he gave us the way and said all but the, I think, Pompadour, had good coffee. He commented that we could imagine we were on the Paris-Roubaix riding the cobbles. No one so far has commented that my accent is ‘Assez bien’, but the fact that the replies I get are delivered in rapid French suggest that it can’t be too bad. Unlike 1939 the Montreuil boulangerie provide us with some very good fresh baguette sandwiches.
We stayed the night in the little village of Caours outside Abbeville at a ‘Chambre d’Hote’ or B and B which is in a large farm called La Rivierette.
Dinner was at the sole restaurant and I tried the snails. Reading Bill’s next entry I see that the region is reputed for its snails. They were nice and meaty.
Helene and Marc were generous hosts and over a calvados digestif (made from Helene’s own apples) we learnt all about the growing of flax.
22 April 1939 Abbeville to Beauvais
Beauvais was our next stop. There again everyone was very friendly, les camarades in the Hostels come round and shake hands with all new arrivals. Went on our first shopping expedition to-night, bought some grand pastries, and had the best cheese ever – Camembert! At this Hostel we were introduced to escargots (snails) – a very fine brand grow round this district apparently, and a railway workers and his wife who were camping in the garden showed us a bag full they had gathered – also offered us some but they didn’t appeal somehow. The cyclists who had come from Paris for the week-end wore baggy navy blue trousers gathered in at the ankle, and bright red handkerchiefs tied cowboy fashion round their necks.
23 April 2010 Abbeville to Gerberoy (near Beauvais)
There was frost on roof tiles as we rode into Abbeville. We agreed that its cathedral, which is rather tall, was not well proportioned and over decorated. Over the Somme and out into the countryside again the hectares of rape (canola) were bright yellow in the morning sun and contrasted with the early green barley and the as yet unsown ploughed fields. A rape yellow wagtail popped up from the brown earth. The house martins, back from their winter in Africa, were zooming around the barns and pied wagtails dancing on the roofs. The villages are very quiet. Though there are some large tractors working across the broad acre (hectare) land which looks very productive, there seems to be not a lot of wealth in many villages. The old wattle and daub barn walls are, sadly, being patched with corrugated iron. We see the occasional old person collecting their mail from the communal letter boxes. We wonder if, as in too many places, the country youth have fled to the cities.
Helene from La Rivierette told us we should visit Gerberoy saying it is the most beautiful village in France. It very well might be. It sits on a hill around a chateau and church. Houses, some half timber, squash into its twisting little streets.
Some of the timber is painted powder blue. One little corner house with powder blue half timber is surely from a fairy tale. Someone once suggested to me that France is really a theme park of itself. We wouldn’t take much convincing that Walt Disney had designed many of these villages and the chateau.
We were very well looked after by Sarah our hostess at the ‘Chambre d’Hote’ which we very highly recommend notwithstanding a bit of a problem initially with the hot water.
23 April 1939 Beauvais to Paris
Sunday morning we set out for Paris, weather was not too good to-day, but we managed to arrive. Our impressions of France so far are what lovely white cart horses they breed, how friendly all the country people are, how fond they are of a dull grey-blue paint for all their houses, and the number of English cars presumably on their way to Paris. Had an awful job finding, the Hostel address, shall we ever forget 4 Rue Leclerc? The Gendarmes excelled themselves in Paris – I think we asked quite 25, and one was very pained to think I didn’t know what the Chatelet was – I know now – it’s a monument historique, but query, which of the many monuments is THE one? Finally we found the hostel, not very nice, but we sallied forth to a very fashionable quarter in search of food, and got bitten at a very swagg24er restaurant – 12 francs for chocolate and bread and cheese!! Shared the dorm with two sisters, who came from Morocco and discovered there was a large party of English Schoolboys there as well. Also met a Dane, ginger who spoke English with a strong Scottish accent, and who remembered seeing us at the London Hostel – did my good deed by interpreting, as he couldn’t speak French. It strikes me as being rather funny – with my very limited knowledge of French.
24 April 2010 Gerberoy to Paris
A quick cold run into Beauvais got us going. We found our way to the D35 pretty easily. We pushed along pretty quickly on middle category roads. Climbing out of one valley we passed an old couple cutting some vegetation by the road. Philip established that they were collecting wild celery for their lapins. I’d like to think those lapins were not destined for the pot.
We’d planned on morning coffee at Heonville. It has a splendid chateau, but the brasserie wasn’t open for business this Saturday morning. We chatted to two cyclists, rather older than we, on very smart, full carbon and tres leger Treks. They said we might get coffee at Grisy la Platres 9 ks on. They were quite impressed that we were on our way to Norway via Rome.
Brice LeCluze, the chef at the Auberge in Grisy, produced excellent baguettes with fromage and jambon cru. He spoke English with a Jamie Oliver accent, barely a trace of a French accent, having spent 10 years in the UK and gave very precise directions to the RER train station in Cergy. We crammed our three bikes onto the train at about 12:30 getting in everyone’s way. Three or four times the line crosses the Oise and then the wide Seine. The rivers seem somehow to cradle their huge low riding working barges.
By the time we pushed our bikes onto the fifth escalator up to ground level at Chatelet we were quite skilled at balancing them with their heavy panniers across three or four moving steps.
I think very few Parisiens were hiding in their apartments that afternoon, which had become very warm. We dodged them through the narrow lanes of the Marais to our hotel.
24 April 1939 Rest day in Paris
Monday morning we set off to explore Paris, and by great good fortune we found Notre Dame straight away. The glorious blue in the stained glass impressed us most of all. Then we went alongside the Seine to the Louvre which was unfortunately closed, then through the Tuileries Gardens to the Champs Elsysees where the chestnuts were in bloom, to the Arc de Triomphe – very English this. Then on to Cooks for cash and then our first meal in a café – the best we could rise to was ham and eggs followed by Anna au Kirsch. Off again to find the Eiffel Tower, and then we learnt that its cheaper to have cakes and chocolate standing up. Then comes a downpour so we buy postcards to send home and keep make tracks for the Hostel.
25, 26 April 2010 – Rest days in Paris
We thought these rest days came at exactly the right time. I won’t write about Paris just now – maybe later.
25 April 1939 Paris to Fontainebleau
Found the Post Restant, again with the aid of the Gendarmes – I take every opportunity of asking them the way, they treat me like a Duchess, salute charmingly and say ‘A votre service Mlle’. Followed the Seine out of Paris, which we didn’t like leaving, and then through an industrial district, until we reach Foret Senart where we have lunch by the roadside. Shortly afterwards a very jolly cyclist asked permission to ride with us, and treated us to lemonade at a little estaminet in the forest of Fontainebleau. Here we were treated to a charming sight, hearing horse bells in the forest we looked up to see two timber wagons, pulled by lovely white horses, halt just opposite by a little wayside shrine, and then the carters came across for a drink. One ate a raw egg by just making a hole in the shell and sucking. Max, our cyclist kindly found the Hostel in Fontainebleau for us, but seemed rather disturbed as it wasn’t anything to speak of even as French Hostels go and they didn’t go very far. He was also a bit worried about the idea of our camping out – asked if we’d a gun. Also he pointed out that it was not polite to use the ‘tu’ in French – said charmingly it didn’t matter to him, but other people mightn’t like it! Saw the famous Palais here, a vast place but it seems to be falling to pieces. Had our first washing day here, with hot water, and after a supper of macaroni cheese went to bed in a Hostel to ourselves. The Aubergiste’s daughter here spoke English, but it was worse trying to understand her English than speaking my bad French.
27 April 2010 – Paris to Sens
We pedalled through the Foret de Fontainebleau on pretty smooth dirt tracks. It was possible to imagine the hunting parties of the kings and Napolean out chasing down the deer and the wild boar. We had to do a few Ks on a major road before a nice downhill run on a paved road closed to motor traffic sauf autorisee into Fontainebleau.
Running fast down a hill we just noticed a shrine to Tadeusz Kosciusko. He seems to have had some relevance to these parts. Some randonneurs approached and offered to take our photo. We managed to explain that our highest mountain was named after him.
We had a slightly tricky conversation at lunch in French with a couple next to us about our trip and particularly about the gear ratios on our bikes and whether we had a low enough gear for the col de St Gottard
Philip and Brian had planned to go to Versaiiles in Paris on Monday, but found that Monday was its closed day. Guess what? Tuesday is the closed day for the Chateau here! We were able to push and ride our bikes around the place. How did they use all those rooms and all those grounds?
The run in the afternoon was through beautiful gently undulating countryside. A picture staying in my mind was a small wood with little white daisies scattered at the feet of the trees.
We found ourselves on the road at one point with an older cyclist who showed us a quieter route than we had chosen. He stayed with us for a bit, but being 71 he decided that we were a bit too fast up the hills.
The women at the Mairie at Lorrez-Le-Bocage-Preaux spent at least half an hour helping us try to find accommodation in the next few towns, but to no avail. We rode on to Sens and finished up in the magnificent Formule Un!
26 April 1939 Fontainebleau to Sens
Another lazy day. A lovely flat road still through the forest to Sens. A very tiny Hostel, apparently only two beds, but a nice Pere and Mere Aubergiste who gave us a good supper for 7 francs, Soup omelette, macaroni and fruit puree. Sens had a nice Cathedral with a museum, which we hurriedly vacated after learning we were expected to pay – a good let out by pretending not to understand. Here I bought a green beret for 12 francs and later discovered I could have had one for 8!
27 April 1939 Sens to Cussy-sur-Forges
120 kilos today to Cussy-sur-Forges. Glorious country, but all the bakeries are shut today, anyhow we succeed in getting a stale loaf from a grocers. Scenery very like the Wye Valley to Avallon. After tea it starts to rain and as there is no Hostel anywhere near we look for an Inn. The first we ask at is full, but after consideration the inn-keeper shows me what they call a single bed, and we decide it’s quite big enough. Later discovered we had turned the Colonel out. He and two nice young officers were dining at the same time as us, but no progress was made, and next morning they had gone before we came down. Berry in bed first under a colossal red eiderdown, she looks like someone buried under an avalanche.
28 April 2010 – Sens to Montbard
We left Sens on a fast road along the Yonne by the chemin de fer. This isn’t the 1939 route because we are taking the Canal de Bourgogne tow path. Half a dozen motor bikers wearing numbered Ecole de Police jackets repeatedly passed us – maybe they were monitoring us thinking we might be spies as some suggest were my mother and her companion.
We joined the Canal de Bourgogne tow path at Migennes, but found it a bit rough and suffered our first puncture. It was my tyre and the highly skilled pit crew of B and P had us on the way again in moments.
Now and then what I think were Curlew Sandpipers shot up from the banks of the canal and Grey Herons rose lazily into the air as we approached.
Arriving at Montbard we met a very suntanned retired English policeman with a bike very heavily laden with camping gear also on his way along the canal. He’d been on the road from Calais for eleven days. Carrying just the gear for staying in hotels etc certainly makes for greater speed.
Montbard dedicates itself to the great French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) a statue of whom stands outside the gare. A statue of goat stands against his plinth. It seems to have been added quite recently.
We tried a premier cru Côtes de Nuits pinot noir at dinner for about 23 Euros. It was pretty good with a nice bit of the farm earthiness. My magret de canard au cassis was excellent. Philip’s entrecote had an Epoises (local cheese) sauce with nice viscosity.
28 April 1939 to Dijon
They gave us a lovely brekker at the Inn – hot toast and two lovely cups of chocolate then en avant for Dijon. An easy day, with a glorious 9 kms downhill, but bitterly cold – we tried in vain to find a sheltered spot for our dinner today. Arrived at Dijon we had a little difficulty in finding the Hostel, we were first of all directed to a kind of Y.M.C.A. place, and finally after a vain wait for the Secretary les camarades took us to the Hostel – a lovely little Chalet high up above the twon (all the roofs in France are a lovely glowing red) where we looked after ourselves. After a little while another couple turned up – a Swiss girl and Guerri-we-don’t-know-what, but we decided like Mlle. Had a good supper, slept well and breakfasted well, but still freezingly cold.
29 April Montbard to Dijon
The legend on the map the Office de Tourisme gave us suggested that Canal de Bourgogne tow path from here to Dijon was paved. It ain’t, but it is pretty smooth.
A few Ks on Monsieur Gougeat runs a guest house in a lock keeper’s cottage and serves very good coffee. He’s a bit of an ornithologist and he and I attempted to discuss a few species in French. He has a pair of leghorns he calls Arthur and Gwenivere – I couldn’t quite understand why. We noted he had an ancient typewriter in his office and when I said I had a friend in Australia who had 50 or so it turned out he was a collecteur also with quite a number elsewhere in his cottage.
A glimpse of a jay, with its fawn colouring and blue wing flashes made me think of Kookaburras. The occasional Black Kite circles overhead beneath the criss-cross of contrails.
We tried to learn from a couple on a barge flying the tricoleur why all the boats we’d seen weren’t moving. It turned out they were Italian. In Philip’s words “one language too far” meant our communication was less than successful. Somewhat bizarrely, we were told we reminded them of a book by P G Wodehouse about three men biking around Europe. A bit of internet research has not revealed which of his this might be.
We finally saw a couple of boats on the move coming and going from a lock. We stopped to watch the lock in operation and found that the boat entering the lock carried a British couple. They couldn’t explain why no other boats had been moving as the lock keepers operate every day. These employees of the state ride up and down the canal on scooters simply keeping tabs on boats that are moving and operate the locks for them. Presumably they have each their stretch to look after. This only costs a canal user 240 euros for a year.
We lunched well on croque Savoyard at Pouiily-en-Auxois, the Cap de Canal – its highest point. It goes through a tunnel here several kms long and there is no tow path so the bike route climbs over the watershed. Barges used to be towed through the tunnel by a boat with an electric motor which drew its power from overhead cables as does a tram. The whole thing is pretty amazing engineering and presumably all done by manual labour.
As we ran by the canal twisting and turning in the narrow valley of the Ouche the wind sometimes helped, sometimes hindered. The final 15 or so kms into Dijon was smoothly paved and I got a fast tow by a couple of pink lycra clad cyclistes.
We dined very well at L’Escargot for 22 E. I felt escargots had to be consumed, but B and P are not quite yet ready for snails and found the Jambon persille (a sort terrine) superb. The gougonettes de saumon in white wine sauce were memorable, but the ordinary AOC Bourgogne didn’t quite match the Premier Cru of last night.
29 April 1939 Dijon to Beaune
To the Post Office for letters – no luck for me. Dijon is a very handsome town but too much pave for our liking. We buy bread and balance on Berry’s bike, it falls off and narrowly escapes annihilation by a bus – dinner off the same loaf in a copse to a shelter us from the wind. We are now running alongside the Cote d’Or, low hills all covered with vineyards, which haven’t yet begun to sprout. We arrived at Beaune quite early, and some school lads took us to the Hostel. A torrent of French from Mlle which I couldn’t understand, but apparently the hostel is only for boys – anyhow we are allowed to stop. It’s lovely, the cleanest we’ve been in yet, and we heat water and have our first bath. Then we sallied forth as usual to buy food – we liked the town, a very important centre of the vine industry, and the hostel is next to a swagger hotel, the Ducs de Bourgogne. On our return found our friends of the night before had turned up, they, or rather she is rather scornful of our way of cooking our own grub, inform us they buy theirs en route, anyhow we haven’t got as much cash to burn. They go off to the local picture house, and we spend a domestic evening mending, me trying to patch up my hands, which by now are rather painful, a collection of sunburnt chilblains, and do they look a sight!
30 April 2010 Dijon to Beaune
A wet day. We followed the Routes des Grands Cru to Nuits Saint George and then climbed about 200 meters to Chaux in the Hautes Cotes de Nuits Saint George. It is intriguing that some fields are vineyards and others next door are sown to rape or wheat. Is the AOC regulation so strict?
A bit chilled, but kept quite dry by our Macpac and Goretex jackets we rolled down to Beaune. We checked in to an hotel that was in the oldest building in Beaune. It had been an abbey in the 12th century. Two sets of narrow spiral stairs took us up to our roof top room which overlooked the patterned tiled roofs of Beaune.
I was very taken with Beaune’s Eglise Notre Dame. It has beautiful proportions, a huge portico and tower with a simple curved tiled roof. There just is something very special about its design.
30 April 1939 Beaune to Creche-sur-Saone
Miss Helvetia didn’t use our dorm last night. A flat uneventful road to Creche-sur-Saone, where the hostel is a lovely old mansion, part of which is turned into the Auberge. A young French girl turned up here with a hefty rucksack, and corduroy trousers, hitchhiking to the Riviera – what a nerve! What price some of the comments at home on our trip now? The Swiss couple turned up again, Mlle visibly annoyed to think we had come so far. A wood burning stove to cook with here.
1 May 2010 Beaune to Cormatin
After le petit dejeuner, which wasn’t so petit, by candle light in the vaulted ground floor of the abbey we found our way to the start of the Voie Verte south from Beaune. Voie Vertes are special cycling routes being constructed in France. Because of this Voie we are again deviating from the 1939 route. Initially the route wound its way up and down through the Grand Cru vineyards and their tight little villages each with one or two grand wine houses. It then followed the Canal du Centre (the one from the Loire) to the Saone at Chalon-sur-Saone except that it didn’t go right into the centre and we spent some time finding our way in. We were aided by a very helpful, but a rather too rapidly speaking local. We found a brasserie which had wide awnings thus shelter for our bikes. We quite quickly understood that it was in fact a gay brasserie and though we were perhaps a bit out of place we were warmly welcomed and fed extremely well on tarte au trois fromages and the best salad we’ve had so far.
Out into the rain we again pedalled several Ks, some in circles trying to find the Voie Verte. We gave up and headed to the next town we knew it passed through. Pedalling along we happened to look down through the trees and there it was deep in a cutting of the old railway line it followed. Once on it with its gentle rail grades we moved at a pace. There is something rather sad though about railway stations bereft of their railway. They still display the name boards that told passengers of times before that they had arrived. The landscape here is daubed in large patches with the lemony yellow of the rape fields. Big cream coloured contented cows lie in the impossibly lush grass. This is not vine country.
A Chambre d’Hote is our lodging again at Cormatin, about 30kms short of Macon. Encore we sampled the local wine. It was a Louis Max 2005. It was very good and it washed down the excellent boeuf Bourgignon and the Navarin d’Agneau.
1 May 1939 (Monday) Creche-sur-Saone to Vienne via Lyon
The road still runs through vineyard country, and much of it is very straight and flat. It’s very hot today – we arrived in Lyon about 1p.m. but didn’t get out until 3-30. Miles of the most ghastly pave we’ve yet struck, no post, and they weren’t at all nice at Cooks where I called to see about Tourist Liras. We didn’t like Lyon. Resolved not to call at another Cooks until I could dress in a frock. Hilly going to Vienne, but lovely scenery – oxen are now a common sight in the fields, and Vienne has lots of Roman remains. Some bother in finding our home for the night – another disused Chateau on the bank of the Rhone. A long walk for milk for our supper – the French country kilos are as long as the English country miles!
2 May 2010 Cormatin to Lyon
Cormatin has a very grand Chateau which appears to float in a lake. It wasn’t open for viewing early enough for us so we set of along the old railway route and climbed to the tunnel Clos de Bois. The tunnel is home to a rare species of chauve souris (bald mouse) or bat. The first few hundred metres of this 1.6km long tunnel are very dimly lit for the convenience of these tiny mammals and it is a cycling experience.
Immediately on emerging into daylight we found a table set up by the path set out with home baked goodies and chevre. It was a family fund raising for their local school. We dumped a few euros of change on the table, partook and got chatting. The guy’s brother worked in a restaurant in Brisbane and we chatted more. A bottle of the local chardonnay was produced, more euros went into the hat, but we drew the line when a bottle of red was produced. We had more kilometres to go, to Macon, from where we trained into Lyon to avoid the city traffic.
Standing in the middle of the platform at Macon as the train came in we were told we had to be at the tete du train for the bicycles which meant a bit of a sprint. The driver’s door was wide open and he invited Brian in. Philip and I joined him for a while and learnt that we were travelling at the 160 km speed limit for this train type. Brian somehow quizzed the driver whose English was rather limited and now is full bottle on all the vital statistics of such trains – power, weight, safety systems, stopping distances etc and on the TGVs many of which had whooshed back and forth past us in the morning. If we run into Tim Fischer in Vatican City they’ll have plenty to discuss.
Unlike our 1939 voyagers we all did like Lyon – very much – the way buildings curve along the Saone and crowd under the mountain with its basilica and little Eiffel tower.
I picked out the street where my son Nicholas had lived in 2007 – 2008. As I walked by the Rhone a swarm of scimitar winged swifts was working the air over the river chasing invisible insects. Circling and swooping and soaring they moved en masse upstream at about walking pace so they were above me for a kilometre or so as I strolled along the bank. I was entranced and risked tripping over as I stared into the cloudy evening sky. It seemed that often two or three would get the same insect in their sights and race towards it and at the last moment one would score. They surely must have rules that ensure there are no midair collisions.
Magret de canard au miel epicier that night was very good. We were not permitted to leave without a digestif gratuit – Poire William. We learnt how the pear gets into the bottle. The bottle is placed over a flower and voila!
2 May 1939 (Tuesday) Vienne Mirmande via Valence
A good flat road all the way to Valence, much of it through lovely wooded country with a broad green river on our right – the Rhone again. Plenty of heavy lorries on the road – going we guess to Marseilles. Valence is a nice clean looking town with no pave. We read our first bit of English news for the day from a free copy of the newspaper in the news office window. Soon after Valence a grand fox-hound took a fancy to us, and followed us until we’d gone. They were very kind to him and seemed to think it a pity that such a good dog for ‘la chasse’ should be lost. Mirmande, our destination for the night is a peculiar, fascinating place. A town, right off the main road, built on a steep hill side. The houses are all of grey rock and mostly falling to pieces and very old. There are no streets, only very steep tracks, but they have telephone and electric light. We are housed in the disused Hotel de Ville. It reminds me of all I’ve read of Moorish Architecture – we go across a paved courtyard and up a flight of outside stone steps to bed. After a fine supper (our first Cheese Dreams) we climb to the top of Mirmande, it is very quiet and peaceful – almost uncanny, but that does not prevent us having a good night’s rest.
3 May 2010 Lyon to La Roche de Glun via Vienne
We again decided not to struggle with Lyon traffic and jumped on a train to Vienne. Two venerable local cyclists were putting their bikes into the bike compartment at the tete du train also. My French was well tested in conversation with them. Veterans of much cycling including Lyon to Istanbul, they were off for a day’s outing in the Ardeche mountains. They explained that they should have been doing the Haute Route this week, but that their guide had determined that the weather was going to be too bad. This is the alpine ski tour from Chamonix to Zermatt which I have wanted to do for about thirty years. They were 65 and 70 so I still have at least a decade to do it! After I explained that we were repeating my mother’s 7,000 km ride of 1939 they suggested that I suffered a maladie familiale. I pointed out that if so then my companions must be suffering from a much greater maladie as they weren’t even familiale.
The Office du Tourisme in Vienne was very helpful, but they thought that the Voie Verte down the Rhone was still under construction. We were absolutely delighted to find that they were ill informed. It is made from Condrieu with a couple of breaks for about 50kms.
At lunch time we came into forlorn looking Andancette and began hunting for somewhere to eat, without much hope until Philip chanced upon the railway restaurant. The menu de jour was the only option. I failed to explain what was involved to Brian and when the entrée of lettuce and light pastry roll with a frankfurt inside arrived he thought that was it and resigned himself to missing the pasta and pork he’d seen others tucking into. He was well pleased when it appeared as the main course. We were all surprised that vin or biere was included. The request for ‘l’addition’ was greeted with some bewilderment by monsieur who asked if we were passing up on the cheese platter. Of course not! But wait, there is more – an apple tart appeared and espresso coffee was offered. All this cost us the princely sum of 12 euros each! And then we could not depart without a little of monsieur’s homemade eau de vie!! All the while we were quietly watched by Ouiy, a St Bernard who was surely as heavy as Brian. There seemed to be the wisdom of centuries behind his huge brown eyes.
A few Ks on we found more of the newly constructed Voie Verte. In fact it was so new we decided they’d laid it while we were having lunch. Maybe if we don’t go too quickly they will keep just ahead of us right to the Mediterranean!
Tonight we are comfortably ensconced in another farmhouse b&b a few Kms north of Valence. We had to pedal 6kms into Tain l’Hermitage for dinner inot the teeth of the Mistral. It whisked us back and we were fearful of missing the turnoff to our lodgings.
3 May 1939 (Wednesday) Mirmande to Avignon
Sallied forth early to Montélimar – they make nougat there so all the signs for about 50 kilos have told us – so we sample it, and two bars cost us the extortionate priced of 1/-. Then we go through a village called Pierrelatte, possessing a large rock which local legend – so the C.T.C. Route informs us – says was brought there by a giant. Anyhow we saw several of these outcrops of large barren rocks in this district afterwards. It’s pretty hot today, and we eat our dinner of pilchards and nougat in the shade, and follow the Rhone to Avignon. It’s been a long ride today and I’m about at the end of my tether when we arrive. The famous Pont is falling to pieces, but we like the look of the city walls, and decide to explore further in the morn. Our hostel is at Villeneuve which is over the river from Avignon. What will it be? Idly speculating that it might be the glorious castle on a hill overlooking Avignon little did we dream, after being told to ascend a steep street that it was! Our address for the night is Fort St Andre – a restored Castle with a glorious view of Avignon with its lovely Pope’s Palace and city walls spread before us over the river. While preparing supper a Dutch girl walks in. She is hitch-hiking to Florence, and starting pottery making when she arrives. She had pea-picked in England, and speaks several languages fluently – she likes England because sometimes the people on the road offer her lifts without being asked! We walk up to the top of the hill after supper, and gaze down over the walls, listening to the frogs. Then to bed, with nightingales singing outside the window. Elli has gone when we rise next morning, and has left a note in French for the Aubergiste explaining that she will pay the 4 francs she owes for her bed on her return journey, with a note for ‘the girls’ containing advice on camping in Italy – we are to be careful where we put our tent, and must not drink any water we are not sure of. Also she leaves her address in Holland.
4 May 2010 La Roche de Glun to Montelimar to Avignon
The Mistral howled all night and we looked out onto a very wet morning. As soon as we had the wind behind us the driven rain was tolerable and we zoomed along the D road on the west bank of the Rhone. A lone cyclist passed us then we passed him having a snack huddled in a bus shelter. He caught us again when we stopped to check navigation. He asked to accompany us to Montelimar so we set off in a peleton of four that is until my back tyre suddenly deflated. We found a 1cm shard of glass in it. God was smiling a little though because we were just outside a church with a large enough portico to shelter us while making repairs which included replacing a brake block on Philip’s bike worn to the bone. Michael Haldy, our momentary companion who had cycled 1000kms from his home in Domstadt in Germany was clothed very lightly so he decided to leave us before getting too cold. He however gave us his email address and was keen for us to visit him as our route takes us near his home.
Crossing the Rhone on a barrage I failed to see steel tracks used for some machine or other under the pooled water. My front wheel either slid or dropped into the track and before I knew it I was banging my helmet on the road. If I had not been wearing one I might well have not have had to look for accommodation that night for a hospital bed would have been my resting place. The helmet definitely did its job – a chunk of it cracked off. With a slightly sore head and a banged hip and elbow I was able to make it the next 30 or so kms to Montelimar. With the Mistral and rain continuing and with my feeling a little the worse for wear we decided to train on to Avignon. This meant killing a couple of hours waiting for a train that could take bikes (the autocars don’t) during which we failed to partake of the nougat capital’s product.
Our lodging, the pleasant little Hotel Mignon, is run by a most amiable and helpful proprietor. We dined at a restaurant he recommended. We thought we were near enough to Marseille to test the bouillabaisse. It was magnificent, but we could not work out why it was the described as petit. One serve was enough for two.
5 May 2010 Avignon rest day
Continuing rain and wind and my still feeling less than 100% we decided to stay two nights in Avignon. The first job was to get a new helmet. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a yellow one to match my cycling tops!
We spent a few hours in the Palais des Papes, but that isn’t long enough to really soak up the special period in Avignon’s long history. We bumped into Michael twice and promised to call on him in Darmstadt.
Very unadventurously we went for dinner to the same restaurant again, but this did result in peach and wine aperitifs and a special digestif of Provence gratis the second night. We had indicated our appreciation for the choice of African American blues being played.
4 May 1939 (Thursday) Avignon to Aix en Provence
Goodbye to Fort St Andre and over the bridge to Avignon – a truly lovely city. They have music and banners out – for us? And I get my first post. We invest the three francs to see the Pope’s Palace inside and queue up for bread. Its early closing for the bread shops today. Then out of town to a sheltered spot for dinner, a wade in a brook for cakes dropped over the bridge. We do eventually arrive at Aix en Provence, but the country is gloomy and barren although hot and Aix seems to get further instead of nearer. We skirt the town and the Auberge is about 3 km out. Up a glorious wooded valley, a pokey little place. We wish we’d decided to sleep out.
6 May 2010 Thursday Avignon to Aix en Provence
Today was a sunnier day and it was a wild flower day. It started with a meander across the flattish farming country south of Avignon crossing, every little while, the narrow water channels, some natural some human directed, that divide up the fields. Quite suddenly a high limestone ridge breaks the skyline. Thankfully there is a gap through which we climb and we are for a time in country that has been left to the forces of nature. Low, rather twisted pines are the main trees. We descend to lands that have been tilled and planted with vines. There are fallow fields of deep but variegated green dotted with rich red poppies. The birds are singing all day long, but I presume as spring turns to summer they rest their voices in the middle day heat.
The day ends with a steep, windy downhill run into Aix and a cruise up the stately Mirabeau Avenue. We dine at the recommendation of the young woman at the hotel (perhaps a student in this university town) at the Charlotte. We are welcomed, rather quizzically I think, by the restaurateur. We are certainly the only non-locals. I decide that all the other diners are students and professors dedicating their evening to solving philosophical problems. I suggest to Philip and Brian that the world is very lucky to have this effort expended on its behalf.
5 May 1939 Friday Aix en Provence to Hyeres
Up and away by 8:30 through lovely country, but very hot to Brignoles. After that we miss our route, but go buy a pretty road to Gonfaron, and thence to Hyeres through wooded hills by a stream valley disaster at Hyeres no one seems to know the hostel, but someone tells us that eventually that it is about 3 km out, and only for campers, campers and we shall be toutes seules as the season has not yet started. Anyhow, down we go past a huge ‘drome lose our way and eventually ride by some desolate salt marshes, with nothing but the croaking of the frogs for company. The light has almost gone when we arrive and are told the hostel is only open for the summer. However, an Englishman living there, tells us we make camp in the bungalow town built amongst the pines. We pitch in someone’s back garden brew, cocoa and eat the petit fours. We had bought to celebrate our first 1000 miles and go wearily to bed. There are aeroplanes flying overhead and the stars among the pines are very lovely.
7 May 2010 Friday – Aix en Provence to Rocbaron
This has been our biggest climbing day so far. We got in to our first real mountains and did a total of 766 metres vertical over about 75 kms. Riding along under the Montagnes de Sainte Victoire was quite spectacular. Again we were up in wilderness, following the little road as it wound its way up and up beside a stream sliding over smooth rolls of limestone. The mountain peaks broke through the cloud and caught the morning sun.
A very fine omelette in the town square of Saint Maximin helped us up and through Les Montagnes de Sainte Beaune.
We were taking pot luck with accommodation and luck was surely with us for in Rocbaron, as I approached the Mairie to ask about places to stay, Philip found himself standing in front of a gate with a chambres d’hote sign. We rang the bell and it was answered slightly surprisedly by Monsieur et Madame whose guests usually book. Three Aussie cyclists just turning up was not their normal experience. La Maison de Rocbaron, their guesthouse, is quite possibly the most delightfully decorated and appointed lodging I have ever stayed in. The tariff is not budget, but it is entirely proportional with the quality offered and the hospitality of Guy and his wife.
6 May 1939 (Saturday) Hyeres to Saint Raphael
I woke at 5:30 AM after a restless night and went down to the beach to see a heavenly sunrise over the Mediterranean. Up and struck camp by 8:30 AM, which is just as well for the place is not so deserted, as it appeared last night. Heads have appeared out of several of the windows. So it’s a good job we didn’t camp in a bungalow that was occupied. The road was hilly, and our legss are weary, but the scenery after Le Lavandou beggars description. The sea truly is turquoise and marine and the profusion of flowers unbelievable. The road is very up and down, full of daily colour villas us change from the maternal grey and blue paint. Dinner, just before the bad weather starts, and it’s driving wind and rain all the way to St Raphael where a friendly gendarme asks us if we brought the mauvais temps with us. The hostel looks imposing enough from without, we later discovered it to be built on the remains of an old Roman temple to the sun, but it is not so good within. We go in search of food and cook our supper in the dormitory after pere has made several experiments with the stove inside and out. There is a host of small children and very little cooking and washing accommodation. . We share the dorm with a buxom lass, who is on intimate terms with family that has been a cubber together with three of the children with whom I have a winning argument about opening windows.
8 May 2010 Rocbaron to St Raphael
Guy told us that it was all downhill from Rocbaron to the next town. Well it is after you’ve done the uphill bit! Actually that’s only a K or so then there is a magnificent run of ten Ks or so with a drop of about 400 metres. There is then a gentle climb by a stream up to Colobrieres where we found a very stately town square and a brasserie cum gallerie cum cave cum epicerie run by a Belgian. He told us we should visit his beautiful homeland but explained that the south of France was a better place to live.
It happened to be Victory in Europe Day and we were privileged to see the local veterans march into the square behind three flags held high and listen as a trumpeter solemnly played something I did not recognise. The flags were dipped, Madame Mayor made a short speech, everyone clapped and presumably then went off for a pastis or two including, I should think, the bevy of brothers from the local monastery whose presence had lent the occasion extra gravitas.
Up we went again into the hills covered in cork oaks many recently relieved of their bark. The olive green of the cork oaks on the hill sides is pierced here and there with the brighter green of the leaves of other oaks and beeches. Cresting the range we have our first view of the Mediterranean. Our legs have nearly got us, except for a few Ks on trains here and there, from the waters of the North Sea as they insert themselves into the Channel to this sea that was the middle of the ancients’ world.
Lavender and lilies and wild roses and many more rush past as we fly down to the coast. Wilderness gives way again to humanity and ochre walled, orange tile roofed and pale blue shuttered houses pop out of the landscape. Cypresses, often standing against these houses, point to the heavens perhaps indicating who is responsible for the beauty of the earth. But then, we are entered into a very different world almost completely human fashioned along the Cote d’Azur. Today it is the Cote de Gris – very, very grey and cold and windy and a bit wet. It is most unseasonable and very different from that hot sunny spring day Bill and Berry rode along it in 1939. And it certainly would have been a much more delightful place with maybe less than a quarter of the human structures than it has today. What is more, this week end is the annual gathering of Harley-Davidson motorbikers at St Tropez. We had seen a few in the hinterland, but this is unbelievable. The spluttering firecracker exhaust din from hundreds of Harleys filing up and down the coast is stunning. Getting amongst them on our bicycles is quite incongruous. And there must be a major gathering of Shelby Cobras as a side show. Dozens of these pass by. There cannot be many left anywhere else in the world.
One oddity was a little swarm of those mopeds with the tiny petrol motors on their front wheels. I wondered if these were Harleys in their immature form and that one day they would metamorphose into the big, fat adult form. One of their riders wore a Jack Daniels Bourbon tee shirt and this seemed to me to lend credence to this theory.
7 May 1939 (Sunday) St Raphael to Antibes
A fine morning as we leave Saint Raphael for Antibes via Frejus, where we see the Roman ruins. But the road looks hilly, so back we go and take the Coast Road and aren’t we glad we did. The road winds along the side of the mountains above the sea and the vivid red granite cliffs make the sea seem even more blue. It’s a boiling hot day today, and we have our dinner on the seashore and sunbathe greeted while so doing by two Danes, whom we have seen a couple of days back, who look as though they are doing much the same kind of thing, as we are-great travellers these Danes. It’s too hot to cycle much, so we rest beneath the welcome shade of a Pinewood and then make for Antibes, hoping to camp. The hostel at Golfe Juan is full of black soldiers, and as there was no camping accommodation at either of the other two hostels, we share the warden’s bedroom for the night. Madame asked us if we minded being in the same room as she and her husband separated by a curtain. We said no. So they took two straw palliases upstairs for us, but we didn’t enjoy ourselves very much. The beds were damp, and at about 3 AM the cats came in through the window.
8 May 1939 (Monday) Antibes to Nice
This morning at breakfast, we learn that the other visitors to the hostel are the first secretary of the French socialist hostel Association, and his wife. Both speak excellent English. He is an ardent left winger and regrets bitterly the recent introduction of conscription in England. One curious thing I learnt about him is his great sympathy to Hitler and his aims partly explained by, I think, the fact that his grandmother was a German. Anyhow, he says most of the business interests in Germany after the war were in the hands of the Jews. And he can quite understand Hitler’s object in driving them out!! We discussed the two rival youth hostel Associations in France, run by the Church and the Socialist party, and he told us he was disgusted with it that he had severed his connections with them and with a friend proposed to start a third Association in opposition! Another curious fact – he was what I would call almost an internationalist. He had nothing good to say about Italy or the Italians and seemed rather worried to think we were going there. He asked us to write and let him know how we were treated and said we should almost certainly not be allowed to camp. Italy was full of petty restrictions and all the officials had much too good an opinion of themselves. After farewells to our friends, we set off again in glorious weather, alongside a sea as blue as ever, with distant views of the French Maritime Alps on our left. We have our dinner of bread and cheese and tomatoes on the promenade at Nice watching the soldiers at target practice on the cliffs above. This is a lovely town. The hostel, where we at last pitch our tent is about four kilometres outside the town and ca monte all the way. Oh, how it mounts. The view when we finally arrive is lovely, and the Chalet d’Azur (our home) is next to the Chateau d’ Azur; the home of the Tokalon millionaires. Mlle Aubergiste is a dear. As it rains in the evening, she invites us to come up to her kitchen and cook our supper. We have some grand pancakes and after supper, Mlle plays charmingly to us on the flute. She has about 10 cats. She is interested to learn that we are going on into Italy, and gives us the address of a young man, who has stayed there once or twice, an Englishman, whom she says he’s in Genoa studying to be a priest – name of Bernard Dawson and very jolly “toujours il rit”. Anyhow, we promise to call on him.
9 May 1939 (Tuesday) Nice rest day
Today we sally forth in our best to stagger Nice. We draw a blank at the Italian Embassy, which is closed for the day and no one appears to know why, but Cooks receive us nicely and we get five pounds ten shillings of Italian lira. Then we explore old Nice, a huddle of narrow streets crowded with stalls, mostly food, cheese, olives meat etc. We buy our dinner here. It’s very cheap and we eat in the municipal gardens overlooking the sea. Then a bit more exploration of flower market which was exquisite. Then home to wash our hair (badly needed this) and cook supper, asparagus fried eggs and cherry jam – tres bon.
10 May (Wednesday) Nice rest day
I’m writing this sitting in the tent listening to the rain on the roof. It’s been raining for about four hours. I hope it will clear up soon. It stopped raining so we went downhill to shop accompanied by the other camper in the garden – a rather nice French cyclist, who, although he has been to Scotland doesn’t know much English. A sad misunderstanding about a drink, all through Berry’s inability to drink gassy minerals, he apparently thinks we don’t want to accept his offer and dashed off rather suddenly to catch the bus to town. I do hate hurting people, but couldn’t explain if I tried. In the afternoon, we saw our first French film. The adventures of a brave secret service agent one Capitaine Benoit, and most of the scenery was in the Riviera – we recognised it! Another good supper: peas and potatoes, sausages etc. And so to bed. We do ourselves rather well when we squat for any length of time.
9 May 2010 Saint Raphael to Nice
Rather coincidentally, just as in 1939 a couple of cats wanted to join us during the night in our bedroom in the delightful Hotel Cyrnos in Saint Raphael. This is where F Scott Fitzgerald wrote ‘Tender is the Night’. When was that – before or after or at the time Bill and Berry were here?
The sea was still not azure as it was a grey morning as we set out and a dimanche time petit dejeuner and another flat meant we didn’t leave town until about ten.
The scenery even on an overcast day though was spectacular. As my mother says the cliffs are a vivid red but the rock doesn’t look like granite to me, but maybe my mother was a better geologist than I. I’ll have check this. Around headlands the road climbs and then dips into the bays. The houses match the colour of the mountains – perhaps by regulation.
There are numerous Sunday riders on the road with us and we give and receive many a bonjour and a salut. After lunch the paths by the sea are filled with perambulating families and couples.
The film festival is on in Cannes. We pedalled slowly through, but failed to spot a single movie star.
The kilometre or so of parked executive jets at Nice airport we cruised past pretty much confirms that this is a corner of the planet the wealthy rather like. Many might be here for the Cannes festival and the Monte Carlo Grand Prix which is in the next day or two.
We were impressed with Nice: its grand square and buildings also the colour of the pink rock. 71 years on the old part still has market stalls, but I think rather more restaurants with the greater number of tourists of today. Another thing very different must be the local’s knowledge of English. Here in France we have managed quite often to avoid the locals having to burden themselves with English on our behalf. However we will be very dependent on people being able to communicate in our language for the rest of the trip except perhaps Sweden where Brian can help. In 1939 surely Bill and Berry would have mostly been required to rely on their linguistic skills.
Having only done about 65 kms we decided we needed a bit more exercise climbed the 90 metres to the site of the old fortress above Nice.
The huge memorial set into the side of the fortress mount looking out to see was draped with a gigantic tricolouer and had wreaths left from the previous day’s ceremonies. There was a special panel for the men and women of the resistance. I have been wondering for some time about the reconciliation after the war the between the Vichy and collaborating people and those who opposed and resisted the Nazis. When we saw the veterans marching yesterday I wondered if the Vichy veterans who changed loyalties and fought with the Allies after the invasion of North Africa might ever be found standing side by side Free French veterans on such occasions.
I have noticed that many, many towns and villages have an Avenue, Boulevard or Rue General de Gaulle. I might be wrong, but there seem to more in what was Vichy France than occupied France. I wonder if the Vichy towns and villages hurriedly renamed a street such after the war in order to show their loyalty.
10 May 1939 (Thursday) Nice to Mentone
We were up at 6 and had struck camp early. Oh! I almost forgot, during our short stay we were visited by the school kiddies on their way to and from school ever day, and one sweet child, learnt to say Goodbye every time she came by. Berry’s shorts, on the only occasion she wore them created such a sensation that she put them away in seclusion again. We weren’t out of Nice until 11. Went out by a very long hill which we decided to leave and seek the coast at Villefranche, then discovered we were off our route, and rejoined it by another long push up to La Turbie, in the boiling sun. La Turbie by the guide should have warranted a stop, but it was hot, and so we went on. There are three wonderful roads along the Riviera at this part. Low, Middle and High Corniche, all three wonderfully built, and we had been zigzagging from Middle to High all the time. Anyhow there was a grand freewheel down into Mentone, although we missed Monte Carlo and the principality of Monaco. Then we search for Le Mirador, the home of Mlle. Hovelacque, Mrs Newcomb’s friend. It is an enormous house, and we feel some trepidation, as we walk up the gravel drive, but it was quite unwarranted. There is a Guide and Brownie meeting in progress, and after a rather incredulous, but extremely warm welcome, we are invited to watch them act the story of the poor woodcutter and his children whom he tries to lose in the forest. The we are offered hospitality for the night, given tea, and then taken round the town, the old part of which is very like old Nice. We return to dinner with Madame Hovelacque who is as charming as her daughter – here we sampled our first French wine, but we are neither of us experienced wine tasters so the impression leaves us rather cold.
11 May 1939 Mentone to somewhere in Italy
Next morning Mlle. Hovelacque excels herself. She has ordered all kinds of things especially for our breakfast, ham eggs, fruit, cheese, etc. and insists upon our packing the remainder on the bikes, together with the oranges and lemons from Le Mirador’s garden. When we are ready Mlle announces her intention of taking us to see an English friend of hers who has lived in Italy, so off we go. Madame gives us several addresses of ‘pensioni’ and lots of good advice. She too has no love for the Italians, and has plenty to say on the subject of masculine morals. The conversation has depressed us (coupled with what other people have already told us about Italy) and we prepare to leave La Belle France, with the thought that if we don’t like Italy we can come back or make tracks for Switzerland. Later we heard that our English friend, who had recently moved into France from Italy because she could not bear the restrictions, although she disliked the Italians so much, was in fact, keeping some of her old servants on Lake Maggiore. The two friends came with us to the frontier, and saw us safely through onto Italian soil, after much palaver, by French and Italians. It appeared that at Calais the official had taken two parts of our customs ticket instead of one, and they had to ring up to see if they really had it there. The Italians seemed rather incredulous at our statement that we were going to Rome, and said Goodbye with several ‘Que coraggios’ The road and coast are very similar to the French Riviera, but the Italians plant all the corners of the road with geraniums, etc., and the houses are more ornate. Cycled part of the way with a fellow who had been valet to an Englishman Admiral or of some such, anyhow he spoke good English, and didn’t make any attempt to molest us, and gave us one or two tips, so we went on, somewhat reassured. There didn’t seem to be a square foot of land suitable for camping so we were obliged to try an ‘Albergo’. We go an excellent two bedded room for 9 lira (about 1/6) each, and passed an uneventful night, except for my falling out of bed. Berry has a nasty habit of laughing at other people’s mis adventures, although she says she feels sorry for them – I’m not so sure.
10 May 2010 Nice to San Remo
We have a late start again. Someone has tried to steal our bikes from the hall at the building entry, but they only got away with the lock and our tools and spare tubes. We therefore have to wait until the bike shop opens at ten to replace these essentials.
It rained heavily during the night, but today the sun is on full duty and at last we have a Cote d’Azur. Unlike our predecessors we stuck to the Corniche Baisse. The Moyenne and the Haute soar above us. I don’t think I’d get any sleep staying in one of the houses far above on the edge of the cliffs. I’d be listening all night for the sound of the cliff giving way.
There are some other cyclists out on this Monday morning, but I think fewer of them are helmetless. There are tennis ball sized rocks on the road fallen from the cliffs here and there and a helmet just might prevent a braining.
There are huge white cruise ships that look like floating apartment blocks. In the small bays they look quite out of place.
Monaco is getting ready for the Grand Prix and with the roads that will be the circuit closed the Rolls Royces, Maseratis and Bentleys are moving even slower than they must usually in this crammed little principality. We actually rode on about half the circuit which I thought was a bit special. I recognised it from the virtual computer racing I wasted a number of hours doing a few years ago.
The Italian border was hardly noticeable except that the signs changed to Italian. We struggled through Ventimigglia’s clogged streets and on to San Remo where we decided we’d breathed in enough exhaust fumes for the day and took refuge in the Hotel Alexander. We think we really did have cucina tipica Liguria as we were the only non-locals in the restaurant we dined in that night – eg fish fillets on a sort of ratatouille bed and octopus and potatoes in a tomato sauce.
13 May 1939 (Saturday) to Genoa
En route for Genoa – weather not too good, but the road is flat, and we get there about 4 o’clock. It’s an enormous place, starts about 20 kms before we get to it – if you follow me – but the policemen and local lads are more helpful in directing us to 73 Via Milano, B.D.’s address. He is out, so promising to return at 5 (my Italian, in one day is progressing marvellously) we search for food, feast on coffee, chocolate and cakes for three lira and make our way back. B.D. is certainly full of joie de vivre, very anxious to help, and thrilled at what we are doing. He’s been doing the same thing more or less, with and without tent, since he was 13. He’s the son of a parson in Leicester, but I don’t somehow think he is destined for the Ministry although he is in charge of the Seamen’s Institute. Pietro, his servant, kindly draws a map for us of the way to Via Assarotti, but after a long search we find the Davidsons are away at the English-Italian football match in Turin. This address had been given us by Mlle. Hovelacque’s servant, she said Mrs. D was her sister, but their home was a really palatial flat in one of the biggest streets in the town, and quite what we should have done had they been in I don’t know. Anyhow, back we went to Via Milano, it was by now quite dark, and time all respectable girls were in bed, and we kept being accosted by hotel touts. Anyhow after much palaver at the Seamen’s Institute, B.D. found us a bed at the Albergo California for 8 lira – the honeymoon suite. It was a dingy place and our room was an attic about five floors up, but we were tired, and slept the sleep of the just.
11 May 2010 San Remo to Genova to Levanto
We discovered that there are 30 ks or so of bike path on a disused part of the railway along the coast to Imperia so even though it looks like rain we decide to do this. We think we will jump on a train then to Genova as rain is likely to arrive and we aren’t keen on risking the quite busy, narrow road from there on in the wet.
My mother makes no mention of the greenhouses. Were there none in 1939 or were there few. Now whole hillsides are glassed over. It is really rather ugly. Peering in to some as we go by flowers seem to be the crop.
We wind our way around the base of the seaside mount on which Imperia is perched find the railway station, buy tickets and miss the next train to Genova by about 10 seconds! There is another in 20 minutes, but it requires a stop over in Savona. Just as elsewhere in the world people in Italy don’t worry about how their houses present to the observer from the train. It’s presentation to the street that counts.
Genova is perhaps not the prettiest, grandest city in Italy, but it does have character with its very narrow alleys winding between the buildings up from the port.
We spent a great deal of time getting phone linked. The laws require passport presentation and the store’s procedures are quite tortuous too. It’s raining pretty heavily and we resort to Trenitalia again to get us the 30 ks or so to Levanto. It is our plan to spend the next day seeing the Cinque Terre substituting walking for riding.
14 May 1939 (Sunday) Genova to Pass of Bracci
Away breakfastless, by 8 a.m. and in town met the American boy who’d been staying at the Seamen’s Institute. He had hitch-hiked 1200 miles in 4 days to New York, and worked his passage over, and was proposing to do much the same sort of things as us, but made us rather envious by saying that he was doing Italy in about a week by rail, and the ticket only cost about 30 shillings. Anyhow later we were jolly glad we’d seen the country our way. Couldn’t find B.D. at the Chiesa Inglesi, but got the address of a Count (a great friend of Dawson’s) of Pietro, and then proceeded to shake the dust of Genoa from our bikes. Can’t get much in the way of food in Italy on Sunday, so after a meagre dinner we rest for an hour as the road is hilly and hot, at Rapallo, a glorious little coast resort, it is thundering rather heavily, and rains till about 5, so we decide to look for a camp site, and see a spare patch near the railway, but the local inhabitants seem to think its not good enough so on we go and strike a marvellous place, just at the commencement of the pass of Bracci – views of the sea, pine and alive covered hills around us, a grand sunset, and as I write the stars are coming out.
12 May 2010 Cinque Terre
After buying our pass for the Cinque Terre train service and permit to walk the path we train to Riomaggiore where we bump into an Australian couple we met in our Nice hotel. They inform us that because of the wild storm a few days ago only the short path to Manarola is open. Presumably rock falls are the problem. We have a pleasant enough day anyway poking around these two villages. The houses are just crammed together I’m imagining that the villagers defending themselves against the raiders from the sea in years gone by would have had difficulty swinging a sword in the alleys and steep steps between them. Rather sadly, quite recently new broader streets have been constructed over the rivers that tumble through these villages. The traditional open boats are lined up in these streets. Some are wooden, some are new fibre glass but built in exactly the same style. They have rounded sterns with flat water level wings, I guess to assist handling in the waves. And the central timber spine projects above the bow making them rather proud looking little vessels. Getting them down into the water must have required quite a few hands in the past, but now there are sophisticated crane systems.
No mention is made of the Cinque Terre in my mother’s journal. I’ll have to check, but perhaps the railway had not been built then and the towns were only accessible by sea or steep path from the mountains above. I don’t know how long they have been a tourist Mecca, but old women still chat in the alleys apparently oblivious to the hordes in their walking gear with their cameras and loud voices. The cliffs have been dressed with wire mesh to protect the heads of these tourists from falling rocks. Perhaps they should have been left unspoilt and walkers could use bike helmets.
15 May 1939 (Monday) Braccci Pass to La Spezia
Up and away after a good night’s sleep, by 9. People are all very interested. A long, long push up the Pass of Bracci, with fine views of the coast. It’s stormy and rainy, but thank goodness not hot. Hungry we arrive at Carridano, but we can only get cheese and more cherry jam and chocolate which is not good and the cheese is soapy. The roadman is so interested he decides to hack up the road just by us. A hilly road into La Spezia, which in spite of its being an important naval centre has not much to offer in the way of food, and Berry has a pain – I think the bread is affecting us – it’s much stodgier than the French variety. We decide to look for a resting place early, but on asking permission we find it is just outside a military zone where it is forbidden to remain. Anyhow two strange gentlemen informed us we should be pinched (charged by the police) if we stayed, but we took the risk. Berry had a good night, but I, with visions of Carabinieri outside, and the rumbling of carts along the road all night, was not so successful. People seem to get up at an unearthly hour here. It’s dark by 8 so we have to go to bed early anyway.
16 May 1939 La Spezia to Pisa to coast past Livorno
We were up by 6 and had struck camp and departed by 8. It rained to Sarzana, a nice old town with a fine Cathedral and interesting walls and castle. It’s a flat road to Carrara, which is the centre of the marble industry, but there is a terrific hill up out of it where two very kind workmen commandeer our bikes without a word and push them up for us. A freewheel into Massa which we discover we should have reached by another shorter route. Dinner by the roadside, watched by a crowd of barefooted urchins to whom we give cherries. Then a lovely flat road to Pisa, where they make multi-coloured ice cream which is buena, but not so the lads who decide to ride with us. Pisa is a lovely town, wide streets, old houses with lots of wrought iron work. The Campanile and Cathedral are exquisite, the detailed carving wonderful, especially the bronze doors. Inside it is plain and lofty, very much more formal than most churches we’ve seen, all plain Norman style arches. Out of Pisa by a still flat road, on which we see plenty of small green lizards, to Leghorn (Livorno), which we by-pass, and also see a funeral. Then on to the coast where we find a very friendly farmer and his family, who let us camp, but are rather worried about us in case of rain and take me to the stall where two placid white oxen are having their evening meal, and invite us to sleep with them on the hay – we prefer the tent.
13 May 2010 Levanto to Pisa
We are woken by bells from three or four chiesa presumably announcing early mass. We are taking the ferry along the Cinque Terre coast to Portovenere from where we will start riding. From the sea the villages seem to grow out of and over the rock like pink and orange lichen. Or perhaps the houses are like barnacles clinging to rocks by the sea, the villagers safe inside opening and closing their green shutters as the moods of the Mediterranean permit.
The cliffs are steep, tightly folded layers of rock and they look like edges of old books and the herring gulls cruise the currents around and above them.
We have bruschetta in the sun at Portovenere and set off up the road that winds around the bay to La Spezia. It is still a major naval base. A wall a few hundred years old with a moat hides a couple of square kilometres of something military. I wonder if Bill and Berry did some spying here which is recorded in a journal now in MI6 archives!!
We make good time along the coastal road which is mostly flat. Towards Viareggio we pass kilometre after kilometre of hotels and camping grounds. We have occasional glimpse of the beach that is the reason for all this. As we approach Viareggio we are amazed by the hectares of deck chairs and umbrellas in serried ranks on the beach. It is a chilly, windy day so they are unutilised. In fact we have been told that the Riviera has not had cold, wet weather such as we have been experiencing at this time of year for decades. Some have said 70 years (71?) others more. The holiday makers in Viareggio are consoling themselves with purchases from the fashion boutiques along the esplanade. It seems a strange thing to think that should the sun emerge they would descend on the beach and line themselves up in all those deck chairs. How different was this coast in 1939 with perhaps a few hotels and no roadside advertising and garish petrol stations.
This afternoon our wheels must have passed over exactly the same ground as our predecessors on the Via Aurelia – the old Roman road. There is some modern ugliness as we come into to Pisa, but this gives way to old cobbled streets and ancient buildings. You pass unexpectedly from these narrow streets into the grand place of the cathedral, the baptista and of course the tower. The buildings are a very stark, very, very pale grey standing on a bright green lawn against a dark grey sky. We are quite stunned.
I agree with my mother that Pisa is a lovely town. Yes it has some wide avenues, but also narrow alleys and very appealing is the way the buildings follow the curve of the Arno. The Arno looks very full – the consequence of all this unseasonal rain.
We understand that more than a third of Pisa’s 100,000 inhabitants are students and it is advisable not to change direction quickly walking the streets as they whizz by on their bicycles. Pisa seems to me to be Italy’s Oxford or is Oxford England’s Pisa? This is of course the town where Galileo taught mathematics. Andrea Bocelli studied here, but I don’t know mathematics was amongst the disciplines he pursued.
17 May 1939 (Wednesday)
A lovely winding coast road, we decide to swim if possible, but can’t get down to the shore. A rather unpleasant individual attached himself to us, and it took about 10 miles for him to realise we had no intention of resting. Camped on a farm – there must have been an accident farther up the road, and the locals were holding an inquiry in the barn, visited by two policemen, who had to look at our Passports, and came back to warn us not to leave our bikes too near the road. Supper of macaroni and tomato, but we over-estimated our capacity.
18 May 1939 (Thursday) To Lago di Orbetello
The only large town today was Grossetto, where they have rather a nice Cathedral, but the shops were nearly all closed for the midday siesta, and we have difficulty in getting what we want. We have to take opportunities of buying food when they arise in Italy, for villages and shops are few and far between. Rather a gruesome sight to-day, a bad accident and a body covered by someone’s tablecloth. Not much in the way of villages, we pass Lago di Orbetello, and camp in the backyard of a farm – two eggs each for supper and porridge and tea without milk – lack of shops making us tough.
19 May 1939 (Friday) Lago di Orbetello to San Marinello
A switch back road to Mont alto del Castro. A roman town on a hill, as most of them are. Narrow cobbled streets, and the shops and work shops are all open to the street, built in alcoves. They mend my shoes for nothing in one such workshop. One thing we are quickly discovering about Italy is the intense almost animal-like curiosity of the people. We are quite accustomed to pitching camp with the whole family watching the procedure, and passing either comments of pity or amazement. It is indeed a bella campagna now. Rolling corn barley and wheat fields, with mountains in the distance and a wonderful profusion of wild flowers. Every shade of every colour – tall yellow flowers like dandelions only pale lemon, fields of a glorious crimson cultivated clover, big wild mauve sweet peas, Canterbury bells, masses of gorgeous scarlet poppies, and a whole host of other lovely flowers impossible to remember. I’ve started collecting pressed ones, but I don’t think they’ll arrive in England whole. We arrive at Civitavecchia, (after passing Tarquin) at about 4, and seize the opportunity of our first and last bathe in the Mediterranean. It was heavenly and no disturbances. Then we amble into the town – it is very swell, hosts of multi-coloured uniforms about and we eat buns and drink coffee outside a café in style. On through San Marinello, rather an attractive seaside resort, till we find a spot, quite invisible from the road, near the coast and quite close to an old pig, who grunts a lot. Have qualms about camping in the mowing grass, but the old farmer doesn’t seem to mind, and we lie in bed and watch the stars come out after a lovely sunset over the sea.
20 May 1939 (Saturday) To Roma
We’ve only about sixty more kilometres to go on No 1 Via Aurelia, the road to Rome. Bought bread and cheese at the only shop for miles, and had a frugal dinner by the roadside, the figs we bought in Civitavecchia were exciting – one might expect something from such a posh town – they had almonds in them. There are farms and sheep grazing about three kilometres from Rome, but we lose our beloved bucket, and also the road, on the outskirts and find ourselves by accident outside the walls of the Vatican. There we shelter under a bridge, while Berry treats herself to an ice – they are about her only failing. With the aid of a map, and the miracle of two people we asked speaking English, we ascertain that the Pensione Madame Campbell kindly gave us the address of (grammar) no longer exists, but we are directed to another Pensione, which looks much too swell, we ascend by lift to the 5th floor, and bargain Madame down from a posh bed-sitting room for 20 lire each to a small cubicle affair for 10 lire each. There are about 50 Balilla girls (2010 comment: Opera Nazionale Balilla – ONB) was an Italian Fascist youth organization) and true to Italian form they are very noisy. We shop and return about 8 bearing in mind the warning that no decent girls are seen out in Italy alone after dark then eat some grand elaborate kind of cake called Macedonia in our bedroom and write postcards before retiring for the night.
14 May 2010 Pisa to Roma – by train!!
Rain is forecast for the next three days. I hope looking down on us Bill and Berry won’t be too scornful as we are again resorting to Trenitalia. We find ourselves loading our bikes onto the train with two young Polish cycle tourers. They have been touring Corsica. They have been camping and often, like Bill and Berry, in remote parts simply by the road. Also they talked of the friendly encounters and hospitality of the country people of Corsica. I’m thinking that their experience on that island would have been much more similar to Bill’s and Berry’s than ours has been where we have journeyed 71 years on. The changes of the last seven decades (apart from the replacement of cobblestones with tarmac) have, I think, made cycling in much of Europe less pleasant. The next ten years though will undoubtedly see rapid growth in the dedicated cycle ways and I think it will be possible to criss-cross this continent with only occasional encounters with challenging traffic. I’m hoping I can do a bit more of this while I can still keep a bike upright.
As we roll into Rome I note that the last sheep we saw grazing were many more than three kilometres out. We farewell our young Polish friends who are flying home tomorrow and set about finding somewhere to stay. We have to resort to one of those hotel touters. Yes that hasn’t changed in 71 years.
After dinner we trot off to catch an opera arias and duets recital we saw advertised. It is in the Anglican/Episcopalian “Chiesa Di San Paolo Entro le Mura” (St Paul Within the Walls). I’ll have to find out about this church. It’s a few centuries old so I guess it wasn’t Anglican/Episcopalian originally. We missed the first third, but reckon we got our 15 euro’s worth anyway. It was a group called “I Musici Veneziani” and while they were excellent singers and excellent musicians, what really made them special was the way they were so clearly having a great time performing.
21 May 1939 Roma
Up at seven, wrote further postcards, breakfasted in style in the dining room and then sallied forth to view the town. First to the Piazza del Papa, by the Villa Umberto, and then down the Via Umberto – if we are lucky, for it was Vietato a velocepedi (forbidden to bikes) – this is a nasty habit they have in the big towns in Italy! We find the Pantheon, and stand awestruck at the vast unsupported expanse of the ceiling. A disappointing search for the Palace of St.Augustine, and after many sidetracks find the Victor Emanuel monument, a colossal affair of white marble and gold statues, and innumerable steps and fountains. Then on by Trajan’s Forum and the Roman Forum to the Colloseum – this absolutely surpassed all our expectation. Then in search of food, down the Via Appia, where we had meat and lettuce for 13 lira, and a jolly good cream trifle at a pastry shop for 2 lira. Afterwards we found the Terme (Bath) of Diocletian, and saw many more Churches, Temples and fountains, until we arrived back at our old friend the Piazza del Popolo. Thence along the banks of the Tiber to the gorgeously elaborate Palace of Justice, and the massive Castello S. Angelo, and so home. It should be mentioned that this journey was done on the bikes, not a piedi. Roma is such a contrast to Paris. In spite of all its large historic buildings, Paris has an air of lightness, the only word I can describe it with is ‘fairy-like’ which is ridiculous, but its beauty is to me somewhat ethereal, although there is nothing temporary about it. Rome seems rooted and immovable in the solid earth – much may pass but Roma will remain sort of thing.
15 and 16 May 2010 Roma
It being well more than two thousand years since the first words were written about Roma, I guess that no other city has had more penned about it. What can I possibly say that has not already been said including by my mother? I agree with her comparison between Paris and Roma. She is saying that the label “The Eternal City” is apposite. I’ll make a few observations that surely others have already recorded.
Looking down into the chambers below the arena level of the Colloseum I find myself thinking this was the centre of the civilised world. But civility was something very different then. Being civil did not mean being humane – not towards many classes of people and certainly not towards other creatures. I find it very difficult to comprehend the lengths the rulers of that society went to to entertain, or occupy their constituencies with violent, cruel spectacles. We are genetically hardly different from those peoples. How solid is our different morality?
Though there is little evidence that Christians were fed to lions in this place, they were martyred elsewhere. It strikes me more forcefully being in this place what a terribly painful birth Christianity had in Europe struggling against the might of the most powerful empire there had been until that time.
I’m sure we were just as awestruck on entering the Pantheon as Bill and Berry were seven decades ago. It is now a Christian temple, but had been the temple of all gods. I think perhaps it is the greatest symbol of the turning of Europe to the new culture. And what if Constantine had not been converted to Christianity? Or was it inevitable that because of the growing numbers of followers of this new faith that some such leader would have made this step sooner rather than later? Maybe because I am not quite a Christian I am especially impressed that this religion grew the way it did against great odds. The struggle it had was surely what gave it the strength it eventually assumed in Europe. And then, to its great cost, this strength and power gave birth to its corruption. Commentators on the currently public debate between the atheist opinion leaders and Christian and other religious leaders suggest that this fight will do religion generally more good than harm. But I hope the power religion still has over the society of humanity declines and declines and it confines itself to what is truly extra temporal or spiritual. An exhibition in the Santa Maria degli Angeli on Galileo, his work and his faith and the relationship between science and religion adds to this hope. I’ve been listening to a choral mass by Cherubini while writing this!
22 May 1939 Roma to Vetralla
Rose again at 7, breakfasted, paid up – our stay in Roma has cost us about 100 lira, and we only have 500. Went to the post Restante for letters and spent 5/- in stamps, which left us broken-hearted. The Post Office is very elaborate. It has a courtyard in the centre with fountains playing. Our legs have a job to push us out of Rome, the climate seems very enervating. The country at first is hilly with sheep grazing; after Monterosi it looks interesting. Sutri, which is built on fawn sandstone has many visible Roman remains, and a lot of caves like those on the Severn at Arley, only more so. Buy bread in Vetralla, and then look for a site. Up a long lane to a farm, and there meet a very affable old farmer who insists on putting us in the barn for the night, and not content with that, brings us wine, bread and broad beans on a dish covered with clean white cloth. This is to us rather amazing, because although the people have been kindness itself I am sure they have nothing to give away. The country people seem awfully poor, and dinner is usually a hunk of dry rye bread. We are on a hill surrounded by hills and mountains, and while we get ready for bed the cuckoo is still going strong, but the nightingale??, to whom we are now quite accustomed has just struck up.
23 May 1939 Vetralla to Acquapendente
Awake early, and packed up about 9 – a grand morning. The old farmer, who was evidently going off for the day had said Goodbye before we realised it. Stood in the doorway, raised his arm, with a very courtly gesture and said “A riverderla” (He had fought in the Great War he told us, but had forgotten all the English he’d learnt. I don’t think the Fascist salute is an invention of Kusso’s – it’s a relic of days of old when Knights were bold, and much nicer than Adolf’s version. The Senora came up with more broad beans, and brought her mending, to settle down and watch us I imagine, but we are ready to go, and on we go into Viterbo, which we find very interesting (as the town does us). A nice lass takes us to the Cathedral. It’s well worth seeing and so are the beautifully carved buildings around. They seem very fond of a particularly mild looking carved lion here, and there are fountains everywhere and weatherworn cared stone. Also lots of heavy wooden gates with brass knockers and fine wrought iron, opening into gardens and courtyards.
We buy lettuces and oranges in the market, and exit by the road to Siena. These walled towns don’t look as though they’d altered much since the Middle Ages – once you’re out side you’re very completely OUT. A hot ride till dinnertime, with a very long hill and no shade to Montefiascone, accompanied by a lad rather quieter than most, then a grand free wheel down through wooded country to a large lake, 28 kms long, and a flat road to San Lorenzo, where we go up the hill with about six children carrying bundles of wood as big as themselves on their heads, garlanded with broom. If I’ve not mentioned it before – the women carry everything, shopping, jars, and all on their heads, usually on a pad rather like a deck tennis ring. Not much in the way of shops, but several people came with us to shop, added up the bill for us, and watch with interest – what does Tedesca mean I wonder? Down to Acquapendente where our very first misfortune (except in London) in the shape of puncture befalls us, so we decide to camp at the first farm we come to, taking it for granted they’ll have us, and they do. Puncture mended and supper (beans, eggs and scotch eggs and bread and jam) over we prepare for bed.
17 May 2010 Roma to Orvieto
So now we turn to the North. As for previous big cities we decide to train out. Given misinformation we ride about three kilometres across Roma to Fermia station to find that the train that uses that line won’t take bikes. Back we pedal to Roma Terminii and discover that we have an hour or so to wait so a couple of cappucini and an early lunch occupy us. Once on the train we discover it doesn’t stop at the station for which we bought tickets. One has to alight about 20 kms up line and catch a local train back. We decide we don’t really need to do this and just as well because the road to Orvieto has quite a bit more vertical in it than we had expected.
We are taking a more easterly route than Bill and Berry initially following up the valley of the Tevere (Tiber). Orvieto is about the same latitude as Acquapendente. What we didn’t quite figure out is that except for the autostrada there is no road in the valley for several kilometres so we climb to the east about 300 metres then back down and up the western side. But the wildflowers are in full bloom as they were in the primavera of 1939 and we have some delightful views of Umbria in its first verdant clothing of the season. I suppose that the Romans thought that Northumbria in England looked a bit like their Umbria. Maybe they were just homesick.
There is an amazing luminous green lizard that lives hereabouts. One luckily escapes my front wheel. A solitary Hooded Crow disappears into a little wood and all the day long the Blackbirds proudly claim their territory.
A brief storm arrives just as we pass a truck drivers’ snack bar curiously named “Titty Bar” so we boost blood caffeine and wonder what the tall and short Carabinieri officers are chatting about to the senora. They do look quite dashing in their uniforms and we think they are not unaware of this.
We arrive at the base of the mount upon which Orvieto stands and pay a couple of euro for the funicular to take us up the last 150 metres or so. We’ve done about 80 ks and I think about 750 metres vertical in the afternoon and a large beer seems justifiable, but not before we marvel at the huge duomo built at the highest point in the town. It has that layered light and dark stonework and the most stunning façade of intricate carvings and huge friezes of Santa Maria and others made from little ceramic tiles. Seven decades on, not surprisingly, Orvieto and other towns we have passed through still largely seem to look as they would have done in the Middle Ages except for the new glass display windows some of the shops have and a few other little modernities. I doubt that there are any women still carrying loads on their heads though and just as well. A lot of loads are now carried in little three wheeled vehicles with trays. They sound like and go like they have engines little bigger than a motor scooter’s. These have been around for a few decades now as have the Fiat 500s (the original ones) and there are still plenty of them at work
We have really buena cucina at a very moderate price in a simple trattoria – tagliatelle with truffle sauce or mushrooms and local sausage and a carafe of classico. I’m sure we don’t appreciate this as much as Bill and Berry did their meal under the stars of the wine, bread and broad beans the farmer gave them.
24 May 1939 Acquapendente to near Siena
To-day has been a queer mixture, off bright and early for Radicofani, but we discover it to be a city set on a mountain, with 7 kms up to it of awful road surface. We drink gratefully at what we believe to be the top, and then a down only to go up again AND AGAIN, but first I go into a little inn, the only one for miles, for bread and see someone having something that looks like a pancake, so we order some and a flask of wine, and it’s the mostly lovely omelette I’ve ever had – 3-50 (8d.) the two. Up and down to San Quirica, here there is a fine old Church, then the road flattens as we near Siena, and we anxiously look for a resting place. After one setback we are finally installed on a hill with hay to lie on. A grand sunset behind a line of slim Cyprus trees. By the time we are ready to turn in the new moon is high in the sky, and a blue-grey silhouette of Siena stretches before us. As I write the glow is facing from the sky and lights are appearing all over the city, a lonely bird is calling monotonously crickets are chirping, and there are sounds of animals being put to bed.
18 May 2010 Orvieto to Montepulciano
The day starts with a very steep run down the cobbled main street of Orvieto and then down and down to the valley floor again. Our hands are sore from squeezing the brakes. We then climb again out of the valley to the east using a via bianca (white road). These are unsealed roads and they are whitish when dry, but grey brown when wet as was this one. And when they are wet they are sticky like riding on honey maybe. But it is very quiet. So much so that I come upon a little adder sunning itself. It’s only about 20 cms so I get a close up photo before it decides I might be a threat and slithers away.
The road gets climbs and climbs and we round a bend to see perhaps our first ever 15% sign. We keep pedalling for 50 or so metres up this 15% slope before we resort to walking. Coffee Ficulle at 437 metres seems more than justifiable and the trattoria has tables on the village square which has a spectacular view across the valley to Allerona. A group of old men are enjoying each others company in the sun on the stone steps and benches. House Martins are repairing the nests under the eaves above us that they left when they went to Africa over winter and the Swifts soaring and circling and diving over us are black against the soft blue sky.
Back down to the valley we go then up to Chiusi for lunch and down again before the final climb to Montepulciano’s 600 metre Grand Piazza near where we lodge for the night.
25 May 1939 (Thursday) South of Siena to near Florence
Farewell to the family, with a promise to send a photo of the old farmer and his two grandchildren when we get back, then up to Siena, the most enchanting town we’ve yet been in. They have a fine fan-shaped Campo (market place) where they used to run the horse race mentioned in Untermeyer’s ‘Donkey of God’ vide ”there was the sound of wings in the market square to-day”. There is a glorious Cathedral of black and white marble, lovely intricately carved arches and marble mosaic interior with busts of Cardinals all round. All along the streets which we traversed we found on the doors curious carved knockers in the shape of bats. There are no pavements, narrow flagged streets, with the usual workshops opening out onto the road, handsome young policemen – they have different uniforms in different towns in Italy and you can easily tell where the cars come from as they are numbered with the initial letter of their town – SI – Siena, VE – Venezia.
A very up and down road after dinner, all the villages in this part are on the top of mountains, and its pouring with rain. We get rather panicky as we get closer to Florence at the thought of having to pay for our night’s lodging, but I drag Berry off up a hill, and after a little difficulty we are finally allowed to sleep in the barn, and watched for about an hour with great amusement by the whole family.
19 May 2010 Montepulciano to Siena
It is again a very steep descent from the town. The road we take to Asciano has very little traffic and a smooth surface. It follows the ridges mostly and the hills roll away, some sown to wheat, some with sheep or cattle grazing. It is really great cycling which is perhaps why we see a large group of softy cyclists – that is the ones who do it the easy way with a van carrying their gear.
We coincidentally stop for a breather at the top of a long hill by a little pale grey clay cliff face about which is swooping a flock of birds with bright red/orange backs and upper wings. One alights on a telegraph wire and with binoculars its yellow and aqua throat reveal it to be a Bee Eater. Brian correctly suggests they are nesting in the cliff face. Bee eaters do dig burrows in such places. I think perhaps there is no creature of the animal kingdom that combines such beautiful colours, such a delicate graceful shape and which moves with such artistry. Its wings are finely pointed and partly translucent and its tail is decorated with a little spike. It flares is wings and stops and turns and I think of formal, stately dancers. I’m wondering if the designer of the most beautiful little aeroplane to take to the skies – the Spitfire – might have been an admirer of the Bee Eater as its wings are much the same shape.
The road rolls on to Taverne d’Arbia which is just short of Siena, but since it is nearly 2pm we stop and enjoy some excellent handmade pasta I think called “Picci”. Siena is just 7 pretty flat ks away via an E road, but bikes are vietato on these. Our maps and our GPS indicate that we must use a little road which takes a circuitous 11 km route. Not only is it circuitous but it adds a lot of vertical metres to the considerable number we’ve already done. The last part is labelled as a bike route with the name “L’ Eroica”. The climbs are so steep our bottom gear is needed. I think its name means that riding it with the lowest gear most road bikes have you have to be a hero!
Siena is nearly as and nearly has all that that my mother observed in 1939 except that the bat door knockers seem to have been replaced by lion and pharaoh head knockers. Maybe there was a decree ordering this change sometime in the last seven decades. And sadly there are no artisan’s workshops spilling out onto the streets anymore. The Campo is quite spectacular and the town hall is a very fine piece of architecture. The main building is symmetrical, but at the left side it seems anchored to the earth by a grand portico and the bell tower reaches above this to the heavens. The Duomo really has to be seen to be believed: the intricacy of the façade and the mass of carving! Maybe it’s really a bit over the top.
26 May 1939 (Friday) Florence
Off to Firenze (Florence) and by great good fortune, we go in by the side entrance, and Lungano Corsini, where B.D.’s friend lives is the first big street we come to. Giovanni is out so we wander round the town, and then return to the flat to await the Count’s arrival. He is charming, smallish, fair, and speaks nearly perfect English. He later told us that when he asked us if we knew English (thinking we were German) our response ‘We ARE English’ as though there could possibly be any doubt about it, was too funny for words!! He finds us a rather nice Pensioni for 8 lira a night and then in the afternoon takes us a sightseeing (Cathedral, Baptistry, Art Gallery, Churches, E.B. Browning’s House, The King’s Palace, etc. etc.), but as he says he is not a very good guide, we all do too much talking to do any intensive sight-seeing. Back to his flat for tea, and then spent all the evening discussing all sorts of things, and find he has very similar ideas to our own about religion and government. Remembering all the things we had heard about Fascism, we asked Giovanni if he wasn’t afraid to criticise the Government openly, with ideas of secret police, but he said “Oh, no, there is nothing like that in Italy!”. Later he told us what a mistaken idea it was for people to think the Italians didn’t like English people, in fact he said they were all very sorry that English people go no longer to Italy for their holidays. Found out the meaning of Tedesca – it means German, no wonder people were surprised to find we were English. Italy is apparently about the only country that German currency is any good in, and they come in swarms. I should think the natives must rather resent the way they sweep through the country side in their fast cars, and we have heard there is little love lost between the two peoples, in spite of the supposed solidarity of the Axis. We went hungry to bed that night, but elated at the thought of being arm-in-arm with a Count in one of the loveliest cities in the world one night and like drowned rats on straw another.
21 May 2010 Siena to Firenze
We found our way out of Siena onto Strada 222 the hilly road to Firenze. It is hilly. I guess we did a total vertical for the day of about 700 metres, one big climb of about 300 metres up to Castellina at about 600 metres, another of something over 200 and several more, smaller ones. This is Chianti country, but not a lot of the land is under vines. Many of the hils are covered with what looks like pretty natural forest.
Cuckoo calls reach us now and then. Hooded crows continue to make appearances in their smart morning suit like grey and black plumage. I rather like them, but they don’t seem to like each other too much as they are always solitary.
The last few ks into Firenze are downhill into the valley of the Arno which we last saw in Pisa.
We all had osso bucco for dinner which was excellent with marrow in the bones just at it should have. As we’d had carafe wine the night before we spent a bit more and had a very good Chianti Classico with it.
27 May 1939 Florence to Ferrara
Met Giovanni at 8-30 the next morning, and he took us to a hill above Florence to see a panorama of the city and listen to the Band rehearsing Toscanini and Lohengrin. Had great fun in the American Express Office (an organisation existing like Cook’s for the benefits of orthodox tourists) finding out the time of the train to Bologna. Then went inside Dante’s Church – It has a beautifully carved wooden roof. G says the most outrageous things to people’s faces in English, banking on the fact that they can’t understand him – he is funny to use his own expression, or rather one of them. I could mention another, not quite drawing room. My two most beautiful memories of Florence are the face of Michael Angelo’s ‘David’ and a beautiful Della Robbia over a door in the street. But I also don’t want to forget the shape of the arch of the lovely Santa Trinita bridge and also the shops on the Ponte Vecchio.
Parted at 1pm and went to the station – let me explain – we are heartily ashamed of this bit of the journey, in the light of what we did later, but we hadn’t a lot of money left, and the 40 miles to Bologna would have taken us two days, as there were two mountain passes to cross, and remembering that the route didn’t even say the road rose to Raducofani, we didn’t think it worth the effort. The train is rather crowded, but this isn’t to be wondered at when we remember it is Whit-Saturday. Went through about 50 tunnels, then arrive at Bologna, and after a long search for our bikes, depart to the great amusement and interest of the porters, on a grand flat road to Ferrara, and near here we camp on what must have been the village green, or rather the green belonging to a communal farm – the zoo is again open.
21 May 2010 Firenze – rest
So we’ve now seen the three splendid cities of Toscana – Pisa, Siena and Firenze. I think they must have been strongly competitive with each other in a number of ways. Today they certainly battle for the tourist. In the past they surely would have fought for the best artists and architects perhaps in turn in competition for God’s attention and benevolence! With their basilicas they took different approaches. Florence’s is the most colourful being constructed of marbles and other stone of white, pink and green and it has a huge dome. In Sienna they went for carved decoration. For me Pisa wins. Its basilica is much simpler, in plain relatively less decorated pale grey. But it is the way it is set in a wide space with its Baptistry and Campanile (tower) nicely placed a little apart that really makes it.
I must find out about the lease purpose, building approval and body corporate arrangements for the Ponte Vecchio. Why have some of the title holders been permitted to extend their units past the edge of the bridge with cantilever structures over the river and apparently some not? I think the current regulations should not have allowed one of the stall holders to replace the lovely old varnished timber covers that fold over their displays at night with steel rolling shutters.
I’ve noticed that as in 1939 the police in each town – the Polizia Municipale – do have different uniforms. Here in Florence they have smart, tall helmets a bit similar to those of British bobbies but in white. The national Carabinieri and another national force are very much in evidence here as in every other city. Often both of these forces, fully togged up, including with bullet proof vests, are seen wherever there is any possibility of a crowd gathering. I am wondering if this is because of concerns about the crowd’s behaviour or about the possibility of terrorist bombers.
You have to pay to see nearly everything in Florence now even the Bobbito Gardens, but you can still walk up to the Piazzale di Michelangelo for nothing and see the city spread out below. I think this must have been the hill up which Giovanni took Bill and Berry, but she doesn’t mention the copper David replica.
There is an olive grove on the eastern side of this hill. Amongst the olive trees Florence’s iris enthusiasts cultivate prizewinning varieties. I think they were just coming to the end of their blooming, but they were still quite spectacular.
The splendid Synagogue also charges entry, but it was closed for a Jewish holiday. If you didn’t know otherwise you would take it for a Mosque with its domes and minarets and geometric decorations. It makes me think of the rather brief time when all the “people of the book”, those of the three Abrhamic religions lived together in relative tolerance.
Now as to the real David, as I indicated you now have to pay to see him in a museum. He once was outside under the loggia in the town square. There is a replica in that square now. I don’t know whether Bill and Berry saw the real one or a replica and I don’t know whether Jill and I saw the real one under the loggia in 1975 or a replica. I’ll have to find out where he was when!
After dinner we happened by the Chiesa Santa Maria de Ricci from the open doors of which we could hear an organ. We approached and found that a recital was underway for which listeners were asked to make a donation. I stayed for quite a while though Philip and Brian had their fill after a few pieces. I must see what I can find out about this organ as to my ear it sounded like a really good one and perhaps the acoustics of this relatively small space (compared with the Duomo) were also very good. The programme included pieces by Mozart, Franck, Liszt, Bach and Mendelssohn.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog in church before. In the corner, under an illuminated statue of Joseph cradling his newborn, a gentleman of some years was sitting enjoying the recital cradling his terrier who perhaps with his ears flattened against his head was not enjoying the louder passages all that much. It seems to me that this is a very nice thing that one can go for an evening walk with one’s faithful companion and take in a recital along the way. I was rather pleased when the dog seemed to single me out to say hello to as he left.
22 May 2010 Firenze to Bologna
Today was a bit special as in a way we made amends for Bill’s and Berry’s not riding across the Apennines. Rather riding the road they rode we rode the road they wished they had ridden! We did train out of the conurbation of Firenze and Prato and up the valley a bit which cut our climb from about 700 metres to 500. It is a well graded climb and we made the top before we expected to. At one stage a gentleman perhaps a coupleof years older than I came up behind on a black and gold Colnargo. I’d seen this model in a catalogue and knew it was a special edition of their steel framed bike with a price tag of more than 8,000 euros. I was pleased to be able to match his speed for a few ks especially considering I was pulling about 20 kilogrammes more.
We had booked a hotel in a parallel valley and decided to take a short cut rather than go into Bologna and back out. I think someone decided that saving the 200 metres at the start was not appropriate because we got them here and at an almost impossible 16% incline!
After checking in to the hotel I wandered out and spent about 45 minutes trying to spot a nightingale without success, but was rewarded with a Cirl Bunting. Brian was sure I’d made up that name. Anyway the nightingale sang through the night competing with the rock band playing for the hotel’s Saturday night dinner dance. Actually it was no competition – the nightingale was the clear winner.
28 May 1939 Sunday Ferrara to near Padova
A lazy day, on a flat straight road, running part of the way beside the River Po. But on nearing Padova, a curious and furious wind springs up, and we are treated to an Italian thunder storm. We shelter with a crowd of children just released from Sunday School – greatly to their amusement – our divided skirts and sheath knives quite overcome them. Then we find a nice farm for the night, and, watched by six solemn faced children, cook supper – somewhat of a fiasco, burnt omelette and macaroni, and then upset the water for the cocoa, but mother gave us some more, already ‘caldo’ (hot). We have the giggles really badly tonight. Berry says G. has put a spell on me. Anyhow Venice tomorrow we hope.
23 May 2010 Bologna to Padova
We got away by 8 because we had 140 kilometres to knock over to get to Padova. Early Sunday morning through the old cobbled streets of Bologna was very pleasant except for the broken bottles we had to avoid. We’d watched the first half of the annual Champions game last night. It was between Bayern-Munchen (or Monaco in Italian) and F C Internationale the Milano team. The latter scored before half time. We still don’t know who won so we don’t know if the bottles were broken in glee or anger.
We were told that Bologna had the most beautiful little square in Italy, the name of which I have now forgotten, and it is quite delightful except that it is a triangle not a square. It has white lines across its river pebble paving and these are made from quartz pebbles.
The Po plains are flat as flat and so productive. We’d never seen wheat so tightly packed. They must be at the top in their yield per hectare.
Arriving in Ferrara we learnt that we’d missed the Giro d‘ Italia the day before. We should have timed things better! The families of Ferrara were out for Sunday morning rides and older gentlemen were out on their carbon racers, their bright lycra stretched a bit more than perhaps intended.
The flatness of the plains and little antagonistic wind allowed us to make the 140 to Padova with our best average yet – nearly 23 kms per hour.
29 May 1939 Whit Monday –near Padova
No such luck, it poured practically all day, so we stayed in camp and read Hamlet, and only sallied forth to Mazzina for food, spent the day mending, washing and teaching the children to play noughts and crosses, they called it croce e zero, and picked it up quite quickly in spite of our having no common tongue. We called one the Ugly Sister, I don’t think she could help having a grouse against the world, poor child, and the podgy infant who squatted outside the tent sucking his thumb, and whose ‘popper’ kept coming undone ‘cos he was so fat – Sitting Bull. The mother and father are rather a handsome couple, but mother shakes her head sadly over us, and asks the usual question, are we sisters, aren’t we afraid, how old are we, why aren’t we married, and what on earth are we doing this trip for? Or that is what it sounds like. Berry and I agreed that this was the funniest Whit-Monday we had ever spent.
30 May 1939 – Near Padova to Venice
Took leave of our friends and rode on a flat but wet road to Padova, which after buying drinks and honey, we by-passed by the road to Venice, along the city walls. All Musso’s (Mussolini) National roads by-pass the best of the towns, but we were coming back so it didn’t matter.
It’s a flat road to Venice, alongside a canal, with many barges. Advice to anyone wishing to go to Venice via Fusina – don’t, it’s a few kms less on the sign post, but the road ends in a shed where you take the boat. So back we went to Venice by Mestre, an ‘orrible place, all factories, like the great West Road (in England) only worse – the only bit of commercial Italy we’ve so far seen.
At Venice we have to park our bikes, as everyone else does, cars, motorbikes, and all because they are no good to you. We wander around trying to find the Piazza San Marco, but it’s a queer tow, seems to built without any definite plan, and you can’t see any further than a couple of hundred metres anywhere except on the Grand Canal. At length one kind man takes us and we gaze across the Canal at it. We won’t pay two lira to go across and we thoroughly confuse our helpers by asking for Casa Frollo, the cheap pensione we’d been recommended which is also on the other side of the canal. At 8:30pm a kind Shell company man offers to go with us to a place at Mestre where we can get a bed for 5 lira – what sort we wonder – and after having put everyone to a lot of trouble we eventually do get ourselves to San Marco. It is very lovely, but we need a pensione. Would you believe it? After having been taken for Germans for all of the time we’ve been in Italy, and being at some pains to correct this wrong impression, we find ourselves, for 12 lira each, at the Pensione Mitterer, where the proprietor and everyone else are German!
We rode back up the Grand Canal by motor boat to collect our baggage at the Piazza Roma then returned to the Ponte Rialto. With thoughts of Shylock we again get lost. Braving lousy weather we find somewhere to buy food and passing John Ruskin’s house we eventually at land up at the Pensione Mitterer. We eat our supper in our bedroom and retire for the night.
31 May 1939 – Venice via Padua to Vicenza then a barn outside Vicenza
Up at seven and a rush to get our bikes before eight so that we shall not have to pay two days parking fees. Another ride on the water, motor boats take the place of buses in Venice. Everything looks much lovelier in the sunshine, go past all the Doges’ Palaces, and see the gondolas laden with garden produce going up and down the canals. We dashed to collect the bikes and just outside we breakfast royally by the side of the railway on ham and honey and fig pudding.
Venice seems rather pointless to me. I suppose most of the people who live there now must work at the factories outside and they maintain the place purely from a tourist point of view, but a town that has lost its reason for existence, as it were, is not very attractive to me.
We make good time to Padua and decide to explore the cathedral. What does one do when asking to be directed to the cathedral, when they say “which one?”? Anyhow St Antony’s seems to be the most famous and also we see the Basilica St Giustinia, but it is now raining fast and we make our exit and have dinner under a tree by the roadside.
The rain stops and on we go to Vicenza. All we see here is the Teatro Olimpico from the outside. Our money is running short, only 70 lira to last us out of Italy, so we cannot even afford ice creams. On we go inspecting farms and eventually are happily housed in a large barn. By this time my interest in the world has disappeared, but mind conquers matter and I avoid a bilious attack (too much macaroni cheese) by lying in the tent and leaving Berry to cope with the Padrone. Anyhow, any other time I couldn’t have resisted interfering, so perhaps it was for the best – she had to practice her Italian.
24 May 2010 Padova
Philip and Brian trained the 30 ks to Venice for the day. I stayed put as I’ve been to Venice a couple of times before and plan to go there soon again with Jill.
Padova’s Basilica di Sant’ Antonio is very eastern looking with five domes and several round minaret type towers. It is impressive, but its façade leaves something to be desired. It is too wide. Its expanse needs to be relieved by a projection of some kind. Inside there is a Capella delle Benedizioni attended by a priest whose job it is to sprinkle holy water and bestow a blessing upon whomsoever wishes to present themselves – I think even atheists if they so wished. It has paintings done in 1982 by one P Annigoni. I would have passed by except that the main painting of the crucifixion had at the foot of the cross a little Robin. Not surprisingly this little bird, and the other species so named elsewhere in the English speaking world, has always been a bit special to me. I asked the priest not for a blessing, as now I sort of felt a bit blessed anyway, but what the meaning of the Robin was. He told me that Annigoni’s wife added a depiction of one of God’s little creatures at the bottom of all his paintings. Maybe she was trying to remind us that not even a sparrow falls without God’s notice.
The basilica holds the tomb of Sant’ Antonio and his having a pretty keen following was evidenced by the women pressing their fingers against the green stone of his sarcophagus.
My mother mentions seeing John Ruskin’s house in Venice. He was an early critic of the groundbreaking work of Giotto in the Capella Scrovegni. I was lucky to overhear a detailed explanation of this work by a young Italian woman guide to a group of seemingly earnest and pious young Americans from the Indiana Wesleyan University. They were clearly disappointed when their guide suggested that it might not be appropriate for them to sing a sacred song in the chapel as they had wished.
Brian and I trotted off to a free concert in the early evening. It was given by students of the Padova conservatory. They were good. The programme included a Bach cantata sung by Namritha Nori. She might be a soprano to look out for. There was some Antonio Scarlatti and Frescobaldi and pieces by three composers I’d never come across: Janitsch, Pepuschi and Susato. I’d also not previously heard a recorder with mechanical keys nor a trumpet with four valves similar to those of a French Horn.
1 June 1939 – Vicenza to Verona to Largo di Garda
A flat road all day, with snow-capped mountains on our right, to Verona, a large and lovely town and a remarkably preserved Roman amphitheatre, beautiful decorated covered promenades (these last are a feature of nearly all Italian towns) and a large very swish castle. Here we celebrated our 2000 miles by having gorgeous strawberries (3d per lb) for dinner. Later on the road we saw about 50 Swedes, men and women, cycling with cases on the back of their bikes – speculation as to their business and destination. By the side of Largo di Garda, and after rejecting about 12 farms, we choose one and camp under a walnut tree. Without our asking, the farm family knew what we wanted, and were very anxious that we should sleep in the hay. Evidently some Germans with the wanderlust have been here before us for we aren’t very far from the border now. The kiddies playing outside the tent were catching fire flies when it got dark and Berry did the same and discovered the light comes from a bulbous protuberance underneath them and it flickers as they breathe.
25 May 2010 Padova to Vicenza to Verona
Philip and Brian stayed in Padova for the morning and rode to Vicenza where they will stay the night. I rode to Vicenza and then on to Verona to where Philip and Brian will catch a train early tomorrow and from where the three of us will continue.
It was a biggish day for me. I made the 46 ks to Vicenza in a couple of hours it being a good flat road. I sat and drank a cappuccino and looked upon the famous architectural achievement of Palladio, the Basilica Palladiana, but because I didn’t have a bicycle lock I couldn’t check out the inside and like Mum nor could I look inside the Teatro Olimpia.
I chose a route away from the highway from Vicenza to Verona and found that it involved a 250 metre climb (which severely dented my average of 23.4 to Vicenza!) up to a Piazzale with a view across the city similar the one in Firenze.
The road then dipped and climbed along a chain of hills to the south west. The descent back to the Po plains was great, but then I had to contend with a westerly headwind all the way to Verona. Nevertheless I got my average back up to 22.1 at the end of the 116 ks.
Sitting enjoying risotto with porcini mushrooms and a glass of Valpolicella in a little square in Verona I am watching a local on his mobile phone. If there is any culture that desperately needs videophones it must be the Italian culture. I suppose using fixed line phones it has always been the case that the hand not holding the phone has been as active as it would be in normal conversation. But the mobile phone reveals in the streets that the free hand gestures quite oblivious of the fact that the listener cannot see it. It is very common to see mobile phones in use by drivers in Italy. I rather wonder if road accidents are caused frequently because the hand on the steering wheel simply cannot resist a gesture at a critical point in the conversation.
2 June 1939 – Largo di Garda to near Gorgonzola
Up early and away to Brescia, where we see several churches but not much else – these towns seem much more industrialised than in the south. Tonight had a spot of bother finding a camp site, all the farms seemed to be communal, much too much so. At length we camped in a field where we could hear the bells of Gorgonzola, and the people were charming, not too inquisitive, and they let us do our washing at the communal wash place, in the stream on the stones. A word about the farms – they are huge places called “Podere” consisting of a large block of living space and barns and stables in the form of a square, and the Padrone sometimes lives there and sometimes not. There are about 6 families on one of these estates and we were quite used to having a visit from the whole lot before we went to bed.
26 May 2010 Verona to Chiari
I met Philip and Brian on the platform for the train to Villafranca. They had 10 minutes to find their way to the right platform after arriving from Vicenza and they needed about 9 and half of them. Training the 18 ks to Villafranca got us just past Verona’s outskirts. Today was a mixture of very pleasant riding on little country roads and not quite so pleasant riding on roads carrying a bit of traffic including heavy vehicles. The delightful village of Borghetto was on our route. With its water mills, it straddles the Fiume Mincio which is a substantial river draining Lago di Garda. In fact some of the houses are built on a low lying island which certainly seems prone to flooding.
Towering over Montichiari is a truly classic and well preserved castle. In fact it looks like it was constructed recently perhaps as the set for Russel Crowe’s Robin Hood.
It is just a few days before spring becomes summer. The wildflowers are still in abundance especially the poppies. Some fields are red with poppies. And often a wheat crop has more than a sprinkling of poppies through it.
The air is scented with the aroma of the flowers and newly cut hay and ploughed fields. But we often pass fields which have recently been fed with what clearly includes the organic matter carefully collected from the barns and barnyards where the farm animals have spent time over winter. Sometimes it is not an altogether unpleasant aroma though rather stronger than one might wish to find in the nose of a good pinot noir. But sometimes it is so pungent that we find ourselves trying to decide whether to ride faster to some fresher air or to ride slower so as not to breathe in so much. I suppose this is an aroma that has been part of the Primavera for centuries.
We spent the night in our first ordinary Italian town – Chiari. Ordinary because it has nothing much of great interest to tourists or holidaymakers so it seems most unlikely to see many of them. I think we well might have been the only foreigners in the place. It’s quite a large town, but it has but one hotel and the manager speaks not a word of English. We had some communication with him through someone who had a little French.
3 June 1939 – Near Gorgonzola to Milano
Our last camp in Italy was struck (stricken?) and off we go to Milan via Gorgonzola, but there’s never a sign or smell of the famous cheese. A flat but hot road to Milan, which is much too large to suit us. After a good dinner in the park, (strawberries, cakes, cheese, etc) we go in search of Madama Fagioli, armed with a map kindly provided by a nice young man in the German tourist office, and leaving a trail of resigned policemen in our wake – Milan has lots of one way streets and streets “Vietato a velocepedi”. Madama is charming and, although she herself has just returned from Paris, she welcomes us in. To find accommodation she sends us to the Office for the Protection of the Young at the station. This is a colossal and elaborate building. Musso was openly criticised by the people for spending so much money on it. Then in turn we are sent to a convent (German) and finally an albergo where I succeed in bargaining the price of a bed down to 10 lira.
We return to Madama Fagioli’s apartment for a good tea and a much needed bath. It’s a swish place and we nearly had 40 fits coming down the stairs at the though of what Giovani would say if he saw us in our old clothes being received by someone who was obviously pretty well known in Milanese society!!
We explored the town in the evening, including a lost journey to see the church of Santa Maria de la Grazie where Da Vinci’s picture of the last supper is painted on the wall.
27 May 2010 Chiari to Como
Like Bill and Berry we decided that Milan was “much too large to suit us” so we set a course across country toward Como also avoiding Bergamo. We got away by 7:30 and put about 20 ks behind us before stopping for breakfast in Martinengo. I would like to know what Italians do for breakfast at home. The breakfasts we’ve been having at hotels have been very mediocre. The café at Martinengo however supplied excellent cappucini and croissants that would pass muster in France.
We crossed the Fiume Serio and then followed back roads to the Fiume Adda at Canonica where we chanced upon a towpath that we followed upstream for about 5 ks saying buonjorno to about twenty groups of two or three soldiers dressed in camouflage. They told us they were doing a 15 k march – well it looked a bit more like a stroll. We were pretty sure that they were reservists, not the regular army.
We missed the little town of Colnago by about three ks so we weren’t able to determine if it has any connection with Colnago bikes. Yesterday we missed a little town named Campagnolo so again we don’t know if it is the home of the Campagnolo bike company.
On leaving the river the rain that had been threatening arrived. After a few ks of pretty heavy rain and pretty heavy traffic we decided we’d risked enough and headed for the nearest railway station and jumped on a train to Como. As I write this the lake and the gilding on the Duomo are sparkling in bright afternoon sun shine.
4 June 1939 – Milano to Lake Lugano
It’s still hot and a lot happens today. We leave Milan after another unsuccessful search for the famous picture, and in Como near the Swiss frontier we try in vain to find something small to buy hoping to spend our last 20 lira on as souvenirs. We had refused to use it by going into the Da Vinci Exhibition in Milan, and wished afterwards we had not hoarded it so carefully, for all we could buy was ice-cream, which we had gone without for about a week, and cakes, and some eggs and bread. At Ponte Chiasso we are nicely treated by the Swiss Frontier officials, but only get 9 francs for our 10/-.
We are in the only Italian speaking Swiss Canton, and it seems so funny to see Italian signs up everywhere, doesn’t seem like another country. Spent the night in a gorgeous spot by a stream at the head of Lake Lugano.
28 May 2010 Como to Locarno
We climbed up from Lago di Como to the Swiss border at Chiasso under threatening clouds and then on over for a total ascent of about 200 metres before rolling down to Lago di Lugano. We sheltered from the rain that had arrived at a trattoria and consumed some Swiss cappucini and pastries. In spite of the missing sun the ride around Lago di Lugano was beautiful. After re-entering Italy I started to see numerous Great Crested Grebe. Perhaps the Swiss make it as hard for these birds to acquire citizenship as they do humans or perhaps I just hadn’t noticed them earlier. I think they must be territorial as they were quite regularly spaced at about 100 metre intervals.
We followed the fast flowing river that drains Lago di Lugano into Lago Maggiore and lunched overlooking this lake on excellent pizzas. The sun came out as we traced the eastern shore of the lake negotiating five tunnels and cruised on and back into Switzerland. We are about to seek a ristorante in Locarno and are trying to decide how much pasta we need to take on to do the 950 meters vertical to Airolo tomorrow.
5 June 1939 – Lake Lugano to somewhere in the Valley of the Ticino
Awakened at 6 by the sound of cowbells – a skittish young sheep is making them jump about. A lovely road by the lake to the town of Lugano, where we change our money and ascertain particulars of the Youth Hostels in Switzerland. The route says ‘ascend’ but we are pleasantly surprised that the road doesn’t. We camp in a field belonging to an old German speaking man, who leaves us milk for ‘nichts’. Food is pretty dear here, but we had strawberries for dinner.
6 – June 1939 – Valley of the Ticino to
Up and away by 8:30 and the road follows a surging mountain river – the Ticino. There’s snow on most of the mountains and the views are magnificent – waterfalls rushing down to the river, and lines of dark pine trees stretching up to the snow. At Airolo we have a shock – we’d argued as to the best way of getting over the St. Gotthard pass, and finally decided to walk, and sleep at the Hostel on top, sending the bikes on the Goschenen by train, but the matter is decided for us. We and the bikes go by train to Goschenen as all the passes are still closed by snow. We then follow the River Reuss down to Lake Lucern. It’s a grand freewheel again, and at 6 we ask permission to camp, and are lucky but now we’re in a German speaking canton, and I’m hopelessly at sea with the lingo – a firm resolve to study to-night, how much I wonder? I’m tired already. We have a mountain with its snow covered cap in the clouds just in front of us to watch to-night.
29 May 2010 Locarno to Airolo
We joined Saturday morning Locarno bikers on the bike path that runs around the lake and then through fields and along steams to Bellinzona. This is a fertile alluvial plain and we saw zucchini and fennel being harvested and all manner of vegetables and fields of wheat and cream coloured cows with bells. The lower slopes of the steep mountain sides above are vine terraced.
We push on up the valley against a bit of a head wind thinking that we are making some altitude and are disappointed to find that even after about thirty kilometres we are only a hundred meters above Lago di Maggiore. The real climbing is yet to come.
What looks like a woodpecker with a bright red rump flashes across my path. At lunch in Biasca I check my bird book and decide it is a Great Spotted Woodpecker.
About ten ks on it begins. There are two steep parts each gaining about three hundred metres and the river crashes down beside the road.
We make Airolo at about 5 pm – 1150 metres. So we’ve each pushed about 28 kilogrammes of bike and gear up 950 metres over about 85 ks. None of us has done anything quite like this before and we are quite sure we deserve the beers we fall upon. The sun has dipped below the clouds and it lights up the snow covered peaks above. Looking up at the road curling its way on up to the pass we know that we have to do the same vertical tomorrow, but within about 15 kilometres. We are hoping to knock it over and get down to Andermatt in time for morning coffee.
7 June 1939 – Reuss Valley to Lucern
A grand road all round Lake Lucern today. Past Aldorf where we inspected Tell’s statue and along the Axenstrasse, a road cut from the rock, sheer above the lake. We descend to the lake shore to see Tells’ Kapelle – this is familiar ground to Berry having been there the year before last on an H F Holiday. We had to wait in company with other traffic while workmen on ropes up the mountain were clearing loose rocks. The bloke on the ground had a bug le to signal to his pals above – a nice job.
It’s grand weather and we have a nice ice at Wegggis. Later we saw the memorial chapel erected to the memory of Queen Astrid of the Belgians, who was killed on the road by the lake. A very beautiful, but simple inscription in French and German.
Nearing Lucern it is thundering so we decide to hostel and buy a guide. We are installed for the night in a lovely big hostel on a hill above the town with a view of Pilatus. The misguided people at the shop gave us paraffin for the primus and it won’t take it so we use an electric cooker, but supper is not a success.
30 May 2010 Airolo to Altdorf – over the St Gotthard
About thirty metres northwest of the statue of an emaciated St Gotthard being led over the pass by a chap dressed in animal furs (looking a bit like depictions of William Tell) there is a boulder about the size of a Smart Car. In one hundred or two hundred or maybe a thousand years this boulder will have broken down due to some process of weathering that I learnt about in high school, but the details of which I have long forgotten. After this happens someone may find a little brass Girl Guide badge belonging to my mother. You will recall, dear reader, that she named her bicycle Hannibal because she hoped it would cross the Alps. Well it did later cross a couple of Alpine passes, but as you will have read from her journal it did not cross the St Gotthard because on 6 June 1939 the road was still blocked by snow. Bill and Berry had to take the train under the pass. The road they would have ridden still exists. It is still paved with cobblestones. But on 30 May 2010 it was again blocked by snow. Since 1939 another road over the pass has been built. And indeed an autostrada road tunnel has also been built.
A couple of weeks ago the new road over the pass was cleared of snow so we were able to make the crossing. We had hoped to depart our hotel in Airolo at about 8:30, but it was then raining quite heavily and we decided to wait and see if the weather prediction that this would ease was correct. At about ten the rain stopped and the sun pushed a bit more of its light down to Aiorlo. We set off.
After about half an hour down came the rain again, but we pressed on and were rewarded by a lifting of the clouds and views of the snow bound mountains and the green valley of the Ticino stretching away to the south. At 1930 metres we discovered a café that no website, nor any other source of information had told us about. We were wet and cold (well Brian in his sandals wasn’t because he has a very odd metabolism) so we dived in and consumed coffees and bratwursts that were barbecued outside. After putting on several more layers (well that is after Philip and I put on several more layers – Brian was fine in shorts, tee shirt and sandals) we pushed off to do, the final 170 metres vertical. Now I should note here that I had in mind at the 1930 mark that the top was at about 2000. It isn’t. It is just short of 2100. I think B and P did have an idea about how much further we had to go, but when I found that there was yet another 100 metres my legs started to feel quite tired.
Anyway, we made it of course. We walked up to the statue and I went over to the aforementioned boulder and took the little brass badge out of my pocket and dropped it into a crack at the boulder’s base. So now there’s sort of a part of Mum up there on the St Gotthard where she had wanted to go. On the train into Como two days ago we met a couple of Swiss bike tourers and told them the 1939 story. They suggested that I would be a bit closer to my mum at the top of the St G.
This pass has apparently been the main connection between northern Europe and the Mediterranean countries for a very long time. So important has it been that the Swiss had a garrison stationed at Andermatt just below the pass from 1885 until 1947 though I think they never fired a shot in anger. The run down to Andermatt was windy and cold. It is a bleak landscape – rock and snow and windswept grasses. A lone Alpine Chough drifted over us like a piece of black crepe paper born on the wind. We felt justified in stopping for apfelstreudal and hot chocolate.
This fortified us for the next 33 ks to Altdorf. All in all there was about 35 ks of downhill or “grand freewheel” as my mother calls it, but now and then there was a bit of a rise and having to get our legs moving again after idleness for many cold kilometres was each time quite painful. The final 15 ks into Altdorf was flat and against wind driven rain so a warm hotel with hot showers in this town that claims the revolutionary William Tell as its greatest son was very welcome. His statue is of course still there 71 years on.
In the pub we started talking with a local who had been involved in constructing the tunnel under the pass in the 70s. He had in fact later spent some time in Australia. He asked us if we knew we had passed by the Devil’s bridge on the way down and we said we had seen an old stone unused bridge, which he confirmed was the one. He told us the legend. The Devil offered to build the bridge and contracted payment of the first soul to cross it. The villagers fooled him by pushing a goat across the bridge. The Devil, understandably rather cross about this, picked up a large stone (the Teufelsstein, the Devil’s Stone) with which to smash the bridge. But an old woman apparently of some fortitude and faith held up a cross and scared him off. So he dropped the stone and took off. The stone remains and it bears the marks of his hands or claws as he held it.
Bill and Berry broke their journey for a few days on the northern side of the Alps in Adelboden, the location of the International Girl Guide Chalet. Having crossed the Alps we too will break our journey though for twelve months. Five more countries and about three and half thousand more kilometres remain to be traversed in 2011.
To be continued
At the time of writing this the second half was going to be done in 2011. It will now be done in 2012 commencing on 23 May fro Adelboden, Switzerland.
Part two will be found at the Journals 1939 and 2012 tab.