Due to not reaching our destination yesterday (Aulla), we had extra miles to cover today, up to 80 miles altogether.
As we went to breakfast there was a delightful smell of home baking. We were welcomed by an amazing spread, including home made bread rolls……..what a great start to the day.
We set off and continued climbing where we left off yesterday, but with fresh legs this wasn’t too bad. We eventually reached the summit of Passo Della Cisa which was at a height of 1041m. At this point it was downhill all the way to Aulla which really helped us make up the miles we lost yesterday. On the descent we were able to appreciate the views which bypassed us yesterday and we made sure we took in all in.
The heat continued to soar and we were cycling in temperatures of 39c at times. The good thing was that due to the roads being on our side, we were moving quicker than yesterday and catching a slight breeze. Annabella and Dalmationio have been hidden away in the safety of the panniers for the last few days as the heat has been too much for them. But don’t worry, they have had a little air vent!
Overall the day was going well, if it wasn’t downhill, it was flat. As we turned towards Massa to pick up the coast road to Pisa, we were met with the sea and glorious beaches……….what a contrast!! The majority of this coastline was private and owned by many restaurants and hotels, but all the same it was amazing to see. Dalmationio and Annabella were very excited to be at the seaside, but were disappointed as they didn’t have their bucket and spade. We promised them that they would have a great time in Pisa, so off we all went.
With no sea breeze as you would normally expect, we managed to hold a good pace along the straight flat road and eventually turned in towards Pisa.
It seemed like an age before we were almost in the centre, but when we caught our first glimpse of the leaning tower of Pisa it certainly sent shivers through our spines, not believing what we seeing. After a quick photo, we headed to our B&B to get settled.
Feeling exhausted but elated, we took a walk out for our routine beer to round the day off. We then went to an amazing restaurant recommended by the lady at the B&B. We have been living off pizza for the last few days, all lovely but we were crying out for some pasta……it is of course Italy! A lovely meal had, washed down with a bottle of red wine which had travelled less than we cycled today, and reminiscing over the journey so far was a great way to mark our arrival in Pisa.
Quote of the day:
It’s good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end. (‘Ernest Hemingway’)
Well, we can safely say that today we had a tap on the shoulder reminding us not to be too complacent just because we have 4 days of cycling left. We have had many messages from people saying we have done it now, but today was proof that the challenge is a long way from over.
Today has been incredibly tough, as tough as some of the cycling we did in the Alps. On leaving Salsomaggiore, it has been 95% uphill all day with no let up at all. The amazing photo attached came at a price today, and the price was physical and mental exhaustion.
The mountain range we cycled up (not through) today was never ending. With every push came another switchback bend, and we really felt at some points we were going higher for the sake of it as no one lived there!
The heat was magnified on the very sheltered quiet roads, and it’s indescribable how this type of heat saps your energy. The many rivers we crossed today were completely dry, not a drop of water and these were huge river beds. It was the closest we could ever imagine to what it would be like cycling in desert conditions. In the afternoon we could thankfully see the odd cloud floating around in the sky, and we were both hoping they would cover the sun for a little while, of which they did at times and it was a welcome relief.
In the afternoon we were heading upwards towards Berceto, and in the distance we could see a huge bridge which was the motorway from one side of the mountain to the other. Our map indicated that we would go under the motorway, but in fact we went over it, to the point that we went so high the motorway was a meer blur in the distance below us.
As we were approaching Berceto, we both knew that getting to Aulla for tonight was going to be a big ask. We both said that we would probably stop at Berceto as we were so exhausted. Berceto was situated at the highest point of our cycling today, so yes there were stunning views but at this point they were really wasted on us. Throughout the day we really had to force ourselves to take pictures as we just didn’t care for much other than getting to the end of the day.
On arriving in Berceto (850m high) we started to look for accommodation and soon realised we may struggle in this small Italian village. But alas we stumbled upon a small traditional Italian B&B who had a room. Absolutely amazing, we were very happy and relieved to be able to call it a day. Although we fell short of the miles we needed to do, we knew that getting to Pisa tomorrow was still achievable.
We then reflected on the days challenge over a couple of beers and congratulated ourselves on what we achieved. With only 4 days of cycling left we are a long way off from finishing and getting too comfortable, and our one day at a time motto will remain in play until the very end.
Quote of the day:
Anything can happen between the first step and the last step. (‘Rosie Swale-Pope’)
Last night in Pavia we walked for ages trying to find somewhere to eat. Not having much luck we resorted to a couple of slices of pizza from a bakery that was just closing (not very inspiring). So we stood on the street eating them, when this man came up and showed an official police badge and asked for the ticket (receipt). Not understanding each other we were asked to wait whilst he got his colleague. Thinking we had done something wrong it emerged that it is law in Italy that each sale has a receipt. Speaking to our hotel receptionist it isn’t unusual for undercover police to ask for your receipt. At the time, however, we were unaware of this and although it proved to be harmless we really didn’t know what to do or say at the time.
So back to today, after not knowing what to do with ourselves yesterday due to tiredness and the heat, it was good to be back on the bikes and have the wind in our sails again (if only we had sails!).
Having a good breakfast, we had an early start and were on the road at 7.30am, trying to get most of the miles done before the intense midday heat.
The roads for most of the day were flat which was good, but the road surfaces have not improved. The pot holes and crevices make it very hard work. We have also just appreciated how considerate French car drivers were compared to Italy. Having made good ground by 11am we stopped for a snack and a drink in a very lovely town called Piacenza. As we were getting ready to leave, a man asked in broken English where we were heading. We told him (in really broken Italian) what we were doing and he was really impressed (with what were were doing, not our Italian!). He told us he was a cyclist too, and lifted his sleeve on his T-shirt to show his tan line. We chuckled afterwards, as we thought we had achieved the good old British tan with t-shirt and shorts tan lines, but all along it meant we were officially cyclists………brilliant!!!
So, now for a bit of history…..you will notice today’s picture is slightly different. These are our new friends, the pilgrims. They have been with us for most of the time since leaving Annecy, and will be with us all the way to Rome. These signs mark the walking route of the Via Francigena. This is the common name of an ancient road and pilgrim route running from Canterbury, through France, Switzerland and on to Rome. Google it to find out more, but the phrase ‘All roads lead to Rome’ come from this. Now, these little fellas are now part of our team, and are a welcome sight when we see them so thought we should introduce them to you. Although Annabella and Dalmationio keep wanting us to follow them which is a little tricky when the pilgrims head off over fields!
With 7 miles left we eventually turned off the main road and headed to today’s destination on quieter roads. As soon as we did this lots changed; the heat got hotter, it was like the furnace had been stoked and we were in the middle; the scenery changed from flat open landscape to rolling hills; and the road got hillier!! Now it was a welcome break to have different scenery, however with 3 miles to go we were treated to a few switchback bends, going up of course (as if we haven’t had enough of those!) And a steady climb before a lovely descent into Salsomaggiore Terme. As we free wheeled into town, it was obvious that this place was a hidden gem in the middle of nowhere. Beautiful doesn’t even come close! An old spa town, and our hotel was in the main square, The Grand Hotel Regina. Huge, very regal, and wait for it………£34 per room with breakfast! Internet bargain of a lifetime!
So once sorted we headed for a wander, and visited the towns outdoor swimming pool (for a cool dip rather than a swim you will be pleased to hear), just what every day should end with.
After a couple of drinks and a lovely meal, it was time to hit the sack ready for another early set of tomorrow.
Quote of the day:
All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. (‘Martin Buber’)
Enjoying a well earned rest day in Pavia, we took an enjoyable wander out this morning and indulged in a cappuccino and ice cream……..yum! However, on our return we found Annabella and Dalmationio plotting the ‘great escape’ back to the top of Petit St Bernards Pass to be reunited with the St Bernard dogs.
After a good night’s sleep we were ready for the day ahead, 45 miles to Pavia taking us to our next rest day. Although a shorter day, with the heat and not knowing what the roads ahead had installed for us we were careful not to get carried away too much.
After stocking up on breakfast, we made an early start and were on the road by 0745. Although warm, there was a slight cool morning breeze while cycling. As the views opened up around us, it was flat rice paddy fields as far as the eye could see. A distinct difference to previous days. After a short while, we were convinced we could actually smell rice. We thought it was just our imagination playing tricks on us, but no, the aroma of rice was definitely in the air!
The roads again were incredibly kind, flat all the way which made it good for pushing forwards and gaining some distance. However they were very busy with traffic, especially big trucks which made avoiding the pot holes and crevices even harder than normal. Most of the trucks though gave us a polite ‘beep’ of the horn on their approach just to let us know they were behind us. Slightly different approach to the UK!
After stopping for a coffee about 10 miles from Pavia, and experiencing our first Italian bakery (of which Ange had no idea what she was ordering but it turned out to be delicious), we eventually arrived in Pavia about 12pm. We were thankful to be missing the intense heat of the day which was now well into the early 30’s.
Once at the hotel (alot easier to find than yesterday), it suddenly dawned on us that we were completely ready for our rest day after crossing the Alps. It’s easy to underestimate the toll it has taken on us emotionally and physically. So to have an early finish with a rest day tomorrow was great!
So, after hand washing clothes and making the hotel room look like a laundry we headed out for a wander around the city. Like everywhere else, the main squares and surrounding streets are so quaint and lovely, very relaxing.
We then did what the locals do and enjoyed an afternoon siesta. In this heat we totally understand why things slow down or stop between the hours of 1pm – 3pm.
Feeling refreshed, we went out to enjoy a a couple of drinks and a meal. The main square was buzzing with a really great atmosphere. We then stumbled (again) on the Italian happy hour. Today’s picture shows what we got for the price of a couple of drinks – bread with different meats, olives, nuts and crisps. Delicious! If we were clever enough we could get through Italy not having to pay for dinner at this rate!!
So another day finished, and stage 2 complete. It seems a long time since we were saying farewell to people in Ashby, and we can’t quite believe where we have been between there and here. Looking forward to our rest day in Pavia tomorrow, and preparing to start stage 3 which will see us arriving in Pisa.
PS – Our 2 travelling companions are only just starting to embrace Italy. After the sudden change they were finding it quite tough. We think their confidence is back on track now as they have informed us they now want to be known as Annabella and Dalmationio (has to be said with an Italian accent!).
Quote of the day:
It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting (‘Paulo Coelho’).
Well we woke up feeling very refreshed after the exhausting last few days. The hotel in Aosta made it a great start to our first morning in Italy. The hospitality was second to none and the breakfast was out of this world, which gave us a good start to the 72 miles ahead of us.
I think today we were in a better frame of mind to take in the stunning views of the Aosta valley, very beautiful mountains all around, with the backdrop of the Alps behind us. We now started to feel like we were in Italy.
As we started out it was a nice steady gradual gradient downwards straight through the middle of the valley. The road was fairly busy but we were flying along hoping to get some miles done before it got too hot. For the whole way through the valley the road ran alongside the river, and for once we were heading in the same direction as the river flowed rather than uphill against it as in previous days.
We also had more tunnels in the morning (way to go Italy!). We stopped off for coffee after a couple of hours, and then continued down the valley. As we went along, the mountains around us slowly turned to hills (there is a difference believe us) and eventually disappeared altogether. At one last glance back towards the Alps and the Aosta Valley, it was like saying a fond farewell to an old friend. The type of friend who looks after you, but tests you to the limit aswell. Having spent the last 4 days surrounded by mountains and up near the clouds it was strange to see a more open landscape all around.
Still going at a good pace, although in temperatures of 35c, we stopped off for lunch in a town called Ivrea. Now by complete chance, they had a bit of a food festival going on (yea yea we know, what a chore!). There were marquees and tables and benches throughout the streets, and people everywhere. Once we eventually figured out what was happening, we bought our voucher and went to a stall to redeem a delicious pasta dish with fresh bread. We sat down at one of the tables amongst all the locals (there were people coming and going all the time), partly hoping nobody would speak to us as we would have no idea what they were saying! So having enjoyed an amazing lunch in a very unexpected environment, we stocked up with water and carried on our journey.
Having only 30 miles left we were hoping that the roads would remain kind in order for us to tick them off fairly quickly. With the heat really kicking in, we were lucky that the roads were flat allowing us to pick up the pace, seeing us arrive in Vercelli about 4.30pm. We were delighted with this considering it was a 70+ mile day and we didn’t leave Aosta until nearly 9am. And we had a lunch stop and 2 coffee breaks. Thanks to whoever was praying for kinder roads, it truly worked!
So we arrived in Vercelli, but yet to find our hotel. We knew roughly where it was but it was quite a big busy non tourist city, and with limited language we struggled. So we turned to the good old faithful GPS on the phone…….never let us down yet (famous last words). So off we went, left here, right there, turn back, over there……..taking us to areas which were a little undesirable for 2 people who stick out like a sore thumb to be. But with Richards faith in his ‘smart’ phone we carried on. Now we knew our hotel was on the outskirts, and we knew we were on the outskirts of somewhere, but when the directions finally said you have arrived at your destination we found ourselves at the little light aircraft aeroport!! How ‘smart’ is that! So turning back to civilisation, we asked someone again and found ourselves back on track safely arriving at our hotel.
We realise that our learning of French over the last year allowed us to communicate really well in most situations over the last 10 days in France. However, suddenly changing to Italian and using a phrase book was really difficult, especially at the end of the day when we are both shattered and hungry. This can be a bit stressful, but luckily we know how to order beer or coffee which helps to alleviate the stress and get us back on track. That and pizza, so this could be the extent of our diet until Rome if we don’t improve soon!
The heat was too much for Dalmation and Annabelle so they stayed at the hotel to cool down while we went out for a drink and dinner (and to practice their Italian as they were also struggling with the change).
It was about a 10 min walk to the centre and we stopped off at a busy bar for a drink before looking for somewhere for dinner. Once our drink had arrived, we were told there was a buffet and to help ourselves if we wanted. It suddenly dawned on us from something we have previously read about that this was l’ora d’aperitivo (Italian happy hour…..well 3hrs actualy!). It’s a tradition in parts of Italy that between roughly 6pm and 9pm you order your drink and there will be a buffet of varying degrees for you to enjoy. We managed to stumble upon quite a big spread so after a couple of beers each and a good sampling of the buffet, our drinks and dinner came to 16 euro……result!
All in all a good start to our first whole day in Italy. We know that one of the toughest challenges for us now between here and Rome will be the heat, but each day we tick off is getting closer to the finish point. We are still working on the ‘one day at a time’ theory as it’s worked so far, therefore our next aim is getting to Pavia tomorrow ready for our rest day on Tuesday.
Quote of the day:
Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it. (‘Lou Holtz’)
Woke up to a bright sunny day, and both felt pretty good. Once sorted we headed into the centre of town to sort breakfast, and provisions for the second big day climbing in the Alps. It was going to be a hot one so we were conscious of making sure we head plenty of spare water with us.
The town centre was bustling with activity as traders were setting up for the weekly market, great atmosphere and wished we could of stayed longer. But alas onwards and upwards was the direction we were heading!
So, the ascent started straight from the town centre, no messing about. We knew we were heading for a stack of switchback bends from the off and got our pedals swiftly in the rhythm. The hard part was not looking way up the mountain to see where these bends take you and how far up it is. But you know what it’s like, if someone says to you ‘don’t touch that plate it’s hot’, what do we all do? So after a quick glance upwards, and then wishing we didn’t, it was head down and pedals forwards! We were heading up the Petit St Bernards Pass at an altitude of 2200 metres, rising about 20 miles, and at the top we would cross into Italy, then drop down to Aosta for tonight’s stop covering about 48 miles in total.
We rose out of the valley leaving Bourg-St-Maurice in the distance, but always in sight, just getting smaller and smaller. It was obviously a Saturday morning ride out for many locals, young and old, most of them weighing less than their own bike and all set up to be aerodynamic……..and then there was us. Needless to say many (actually everyone) passed us at some point. But, we kept going st a steady pace, and as we looked around us we couldn’t believe how high we were heading, so much more than yesterday. We reached the tree tops, then the layers of clouds were getting closer and closer, and the snow capped mountains were almost within reach. All with the small pinprick view of Bourg-St-Maurice still in sight.
With nearly 6 miles to go at a height of 1850 meters, we saw our first sign for Italy. This was a very bizarre moment, which warranted a chuckle or two, along with a gasp of ‘I can’t believe we are nearly there’. We also realised. Quickly that 6 miles uphill is not nearly there! So, we stopped for a coffee and some food to refuel. Very tired at this point so needed something for the final push to the top.
Carrying on for the last stretch, there were many ski lifts which take you higher………fortunately they were not working, could of been too tempting! As we got closer we could see the statue of St Bernard in the distance so we knew we were almost there. It was quite hard to channel our energy into our legs and not become overwhelmed too soon. But as we cycled the last switchback bend and up the final hill, we finally crossed the border into Italy. The old border control building marked this spot as well as the random souvenir stall selling nothing but the St Bernard dog stuffed toys. You would think that you would be safe from tacky souvenirs after cycling upwards in the Alps for 20 miles!! However it took ages to drag Dalmation and Annabelle away from all the St Bernard dogs, they would have happily stayed there until we told them how much work St Bernard dogs had to do. At this point they headed very quickly back to the comfort of the panniers……….lightweights!
We were quite overwhelmed at what we had achieved, cycling from England to Italy is big enough on it’s own without adding the rest to it. After turning around to say a fond farewell to France, we turned and faced into the Aosta valley and pointed our wheels downwards.
Aside from the amazing views, the first thing we noticed was the quality of the roads going through the valley. There was obvious work being carried out on repairs, but the pot holes and uneven surfacing made it really tricky going downhill. A lot slower than usual as one wrong move could have resulted in a buckled wheel easily.
Initially noticing not that much difference in landscape and villages between France and Italy, it was hard to remember that we had entered a different country at all (apart from the roads). Once at the bottom of the valley we knew it was downhill for about 20 miles to Aosta. However the quality of road surface wasn’t just isolated the the valley roads, all the way to Aosta we were weaving in and out trying to avoid holes and crevices. Now, what the Italians have done really well is create tunnels instead of going over hills. We went through about 8 tunnels of between 50 metres and 300 metres in length, meaning the downhill kept on going (just in case you were wondering the road surface in the tunnels were also terrible). It was a hard slog on a busy main road to Aosta, which was a shock to the system after the quiet we had experienced in the last few days. It also, bought us back down to earth after the elation of crossing the border. Although we have had other goals we have achieved so far, the sudden realisation that we still have a lot of miles to do hit home big time.
Eventually on reaching Aosta, we called into the city centre and had a well deserved beer. The city is truly beautiful and had a great atmosphere, which was no doubt helped by an Arts festival going on. What we did notice very quickly was our frantic panic that they don’t speak French in Italy! After being able to communicate fairly well in France over the last couple of weeks, suddenly it was all change……..just like that. So, out came the phrase book and all was well when we were able bumble our way through and ask for water and a beer…..happy days. Dalmation and Annabelle were also out of sorts regarding language, after they had done so well making friends in France aswell. We reassured them that by the time we all reached Rome we would all be fluent………or locked up for saying the wrong thing!
Once we were sorted at our accommodation, we headed out to eat at a locally recommended restaurant which was out of this world (not forgetting the phrasebook). This is when we finally had chance to reflect on the day, and those gone by, but also look ahead to rest of the challenge.
Quote of the day:
Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have the strength. (‘Napoleon Bonaparte’)