In a matter of weeks I will travel by bike to Rome on the ancient Via Francigena. Starting in Canterbury, myself and Ronan (16) my son will cycle 2000kms following one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in Christendom.
Our route will divert slightly as we make our way to Bobbio, where St Columbanus founded one of Europe’s great monasteries. In diverting to Bobbio we will then follow a route Irish monks took to resume their pilgrimage to Rome – La via degli Abati (The Abbotts Way).
In researching this pilgrimage I became engrossed in history of the Irish monastic tradition. Ireland played a central role in maintaining european culture and learning in the fifth century.
The Roman Empire had collapsed and Europe was over run by Visigoths. Its’ libraries and seats of learning were burned to the ground, it’s Churches desecrated.
The term ‘the Isle of Saints and Scholars’ refers to this period of Irish history when our monks and monasteries created beautiful copies of manuscripts of ancient Rome and Greece and of Christian origin.
From their Irish monastic bases, monks travelled and established monasteries on the Continent. Among them were Columbanus, Finnian, Colmcille, Dungal, Killian and Gall.
As I delved in I came across a number of references indicating the likelihood that Columbanus was in fact a Carlow man! This possible fact has made this pilgrimage all the more relevant and interesting.
If he is indeed a Carlovian, he is surely the most important one in history.
Our route will take us to places associated with these great Irish men and we hope to visit places such as rheims, Besancon, Bobbio and Lucca on our journey.
From Calais we got qot as far as Wisques, after dark
Its been a helluva lot harder than expected.
Hadnt factored in the winds
For the first three days we had a massive headwind to contend with and to make matters worse the terrain was hil after hill!
Canterbury Cathedral was incredible and the cycle through the North Downs was surprisingly nice ending up at the white cliffs of Dover to catch the Ferry to France
From Calais we got qot as far as Wisques, after dark
Next day Wisques to Arras, then Arras to Peronne, Peronne to Laon and Laon to Rheims today.
Ronans knee has been acting up, seems to be tendonitis but we have it under control now.
Came across many war memorials and graves of soldiers along way. We cycled quite a bit in the area along the Somme.
Terrain changed yesterday, thank God and cycling easier.
First puncture today and soaked to the skin in downpours!
Roughly 400 kms covered.
We saw the tallest woman we ever saw in Rheims – at least 7 ft 5 and maybe even 8ft! We later enquired to find she wasnt a woman at all!
To make up for lost time because of the weather we took the train from Rheims to Chalons en Champagne, 65kms. The train system is really bike friendly – no problems bringing bikes.
That was a great help.
Cycled then to Brienne Le Chateau 75kms. Ronan found a stain glass image of Columbanus in the local Church.
Earlier Ronan spotted an eagle right beside the roadside; it was some size! Eagle eye!
Napoleon went to Boarding school here!
From Brienne we made our way through huge forests as far as Langres. You wanna see this place; a completely walled town perched on top of a mountain. Walked the town walls and could literally see miles and miles to the Vosges and Jura mountains.
A noticeable change in the scenery with hillside vinyards lining the hills as far as the steep pinnacles – this is where champagne is made.
This morning we decided to again catch a train all the way to Bescancon as a rest day but still making progress.
Bescancon has to be one of the most beautiful cities in France and maybe Europe.
We have now covered 750kms and hope to make Switzerland tomorrow. 1250kms to go – daunting to be honest and we may be forced to use trains or buses at some stage to finish on time.
Will try update later but internet isnt easily accessible; most of the towns and villages are empty, no shops here!
Again apologies for the slow updates but getting access isnt as easy as you would expect.
The most difficult and exciting parts of the journey entail travelling over mountains and after Besancon we were into the Jura Mountains.
Getting the correct route out of Besancon proved messy, poor signposting sent us out of our way but we got back on track.
At 8am in the morning the last thing you want is a 13% gradient to climb! But if it has to be done it has to be done!
I suppose it made the rest of the day seem like going up Browneshill!
We made really great progress. The more we crossed France the more we liked it. This part is very hilly but the back roads are amazing, no traffic, great surfaces and beautiful small villages – deserted though.
An obvious change was the smaller fields, with fencing to keep livestock in. Cycling and listening to cowbells is very soothing!
Our target was to reach the frontier town of Pontarlier. We decided though to head on for Switzerland!
It was all uphill – very uphill to Les Forgs and St Croix. we were in skiing country!
At 1355m St Croix was a fair climb, perched on top of a mountain.
We were delighted to have now crossed France and our memories of boulangeries and fresh bread will always remain with us. The French were very helpful all along the way.
But now we were in Switzerland and we could see Yverdon on the shore of Lake Neuchatal. A rainbow appeared overhead and in the distance we could see storm clouds.
It was 19 kms away BUT it was all downhill! What a joy after climbing all day long. Some thrill going round those hairpin bends. Only downside was we think we lost one of our bike bags for the plane journey home..
Ronan wasn’t feeling the best, a sore throat, sinuses and head ache were ominous.
We quickly found out too that Switzerland is way more expensive than home or France.
Compounding that, the weather forecast was bad as we headed for the Alps. From reading other pilgrim accounts the St Bernard Pass is the last place you want to be in bad weather…
The wind picked up early in the night but morning arrived and it was pleasant. Ronan wasnt the best so we decided to take the train to Martigny at the base of the Alps and cut out the flat stage in Switzerland.
It was a pity in one way because the bike path along the lake in Lausanne is one of the nicest. The railway ran alongside it so at least we got to see everything. He picked up during the day and when we got to Martigny we said we’d have a go at getting to Osieres, half way up the Col du Saint Bernard (25kms).
Switzerland is possibly the best country in the world for using bikes, loads of signposted bike trails, bike parks, and access on the trains. A joy if you could afford to stay a while!
Anyway we headed into the Alps. The view was amazing, 4000 metre peaks rising from the lakeside, azure blue sky, vineyards growing on sunny slopes. Sure you wouldnt feel the pain at all as you turned the pedals. It was like a set for the Sound Of Music
2 hrs 45 mins later we made Osieres which was great going for us. Only problem was traffic… its the only route we could take but it eased the further we went.
The tourist office in Osieres reckoned 3 hrs would get us to the top. We were feeling exhilarated and decided to go for it.
It was the toughest cycle imaginable, 20 more kms of really steep gradient, often 13% and traffic heading for the tunnel that goes through the Alps to Italy.
Along the road were ‘gallerias’ or tunnel type constructions which became scary as they got increasingly darker. We flew through them as best we could to avoid trouble.
Columbanus or St Bernard mustve been looking after us as we had the wind behind us all the way up and the weather remained good for cycling.
We were on a high though as we cycled, we were surrounded by these magnificent peaks and mother nature at its best.
Ronan spotted marmots (we think) on a few occasions and eagles again. It was amazing to see cattle grazing at 2,500 metres.
We finally reached the road section where traffic diverts into the tunnel and we continued on the old road. Only 6kms but by God were they painful. It was now getting dark, cloud beginning to descend and we were worried of rain.
Zig zag after zig zag eventually led us close to the top and when Ronan rounded the final bend he let out a great yelp that echoed off the cliff sides! It had taken 4 hrs 15 mins.
The Augustinian Monks have provided hospitality to pilgrims and wayfarers at the top of the Col du St Bernard for 100s of years. We were lucky to be able to avail of it now as it was too dark to descend.
Inside we were joined by a group of hill walkers for a simple meal of soup (minsetrone type) potatoes, lentils, pork and hot dogs! And a nice cake for dessert. As pilgrims our only cost was to make a donation.
The only downside was we were not given a room for 2 hours and it played havoc with ronans illness as cold sweat dried into him. Next morning he was in an awful way.
Like it or not we had to get out of the monastery at 8am. We stayed on top (at 8114ft high!) to take photos and vist the St Bernard Dogs used for the mountain rescues.
We were fully clothed now, with leggings and wind breakers on. It wasnt enough once we started downhill.
For 35kms we hadnt to turn the pedals once, our only difficulty was the bitter cold. Our fingers pained us terribly and we could hardly grip the breaks… Ronan wore his bandana over his mouth to protect his throat..
We eventually landed in beautiful Aosta where the extent of his suffering became more evident as his sinuses were swollen and his throat on fire.
With difficulty we got some medication. We decided not to go much further and only managed another 40kms all downhill to St Vincent.
We tried to recuperate there in a small but nice hotel. Next morning Ronan was worse and there was no chance of moving. We eventually got sorted with the proper medication and he improved quickly the following day as we rested – our first rest day.
Because of the winds and rain in France, Ronans illness and because we are diverting to Bobbio to visit Columbanuses Monastery and crypt we had no choice but to take the train today as far as Piacenza.
Tomorrow we will make it to Bobbio and have a good look around it. This is one of the highlights of the trip as I explained earlier, he was a Carlow man and one of the key figures in European history.
Having now travelled over 1200kms in 2010 along modern roads and with the best of facilities one can only wonder at how Irish monks were actually able to travel this distance, find their way to Italy and Switzerland and establish monasteries.
I suppose one of the interesting things we did was to actually travel on the original Roman roads in France. These are now just farm gravel tracks but in places they run straight as a dye for miles on end..
After Bobbio (weather permitting; its to rain for the next while) we will be undergoing one of the hardest sections. the Via Abbagatelia – the Abbotts Way. This was an old path (not the the Via Francigena) used by Irish Monks travelling onwards from Bobbio to Rome. It travels over three high mountain passes and is all off road. It will be a real highlight.
We will then meet up with the Via Francigena in Pontromolia.
Just about to leave for Bobbio and might not get back online till Rome.
About a week before I left I went to an interesting lecture in St Patricks College on the Saints trails in Carlow, a new publication by Carlow Tourism. Well worth reading and following.
During the lecture reference was made to Columbanus and his connections with Carlow. I was aware that in his life story by Jonas mention was made that Columbanus was advised to go abroad by a wise woman as he was catching the eye of two mamny young wans!
The wise woman was Naomh Croneybeg…
This really convinced me that I had to make this trip for in 1973 when we moved to Springdale my father named our house …… Naomh Croneybeg!
At the time we teenagers cringed a little, having never heard of the woman. My father had such a great interest and deep knowledge of Carlow history and it was a pity he never commited it to writing… so it seems fate has us on this journey now!
Update from Lucca
We flew down the Trebbia River Valley to Bobbio, about 40kms.
It means we have diverted significantly from the recognised route.
Bobbio was worth it.
A small rural outpost, surrounded by mountains with the magnificent Trebbia flowing through it.
We immediatley went to Columbanus’s crypt underneath teh Church. That was a special moment. Somehow we had made a centuries old reconnection between Carlow and a native son!
It intrigued even more how he could have managed the scale of what he did, the journeys he made and then establish this vital Monastery for Europe.
The crypt and walls were covered with depictions of his life and symbols of Ireland – the Harp and Celtic motivs which was great to see.
His influence and regard were very visible beforehand with hotels, houses and alcoholic beverages all named after him.
The hard part was next day. We were now going to follow the long forgotten Via degli Abattia – the Abbott’s Way towards Rome. What a route! Over 4 high mountain passes through remote mountains and valleys; 4 passes over 1200 metres.
This is serious wilderness, very inaccessible and difficult to cross. A 7.50am start got us away early and straight into teh first climb. The forecasted rain didn’t disappoint as it poured!
We took shelter for 30 mins but had to plough on or we’d never pass over this stage.
20 kms and 1500 metres later Ronan wondered had i colected the passports………………………..
I hadn’t. The options were return and now have 4 mountains to climb or continue and hope to have them forwarded. We tore into the mountains with determination and anxiety.
We eventually reached a village called Fairini after a scary off road mountain crossing. Luckily a local had English nad spent 90 mins helping us sort out the passport problem. They would be forwarded to Lucca.
Because of teh delay we didn’t make our destination that day. We tried to stay in Bardi half way. No room at the inn. The Tourist office said to continue on over the next mountain to Bogetaro, only 30 kms and it now 5pm. We had no choice. Got in around 7.30pm. Town packed. Stalls everywhere. Half teh world in town. For teh biggest mushroom festical in the World! And no accomodation in Town. It’s now 8pm, dark and raining and again no room at the inn.
Luckily a local bar man went out of his way and eventually got us a room out the country. On we went in the dark and rain with no lights but at least we got sorted!
This was without doubt the hardest day yet. 12 hours in the saddle and 15,000 feet of climbing!
Yesterday saw us leave Borgatero and into that final climb. It wasnt too bad but we were tired. Weather was good. Sun out. And so were teh Sunday morning hunters. Every bend in teh road up the mountain saw a jeep load of hunters out for wild boar.
When we cleared the Pass it was like someone switched on teh sunshine. It was glorious. Downhill all the way to Pontremoli and onwards to the Sea at the Centre of the Earth – the Mediteranean. We made it in the afternoon. Another milestone.
Weather was fabulous and we made great progress getting 100kms done as far as Pietrasanta. After the solitude and peace of the last few weeks we found the coast ugly and commercialised. Every Sq metre of the beach was taken up with some hotel, restaurant or fst food outlet.
Still it was nice to get a dip in the ocean! We stayed across the road from the beach and moved on next day to Pisa. A diversion as Ronan needed to hold up the Leaning Tower!
The road to Pisa was awful very busy.
Headed for Lucca thenthen. Very warm afternoon. Hill climb out of Lucca and a 950 metre tunnel which was very dangerous. Poorly lit, bad surface and laods of glass. Glad to get out of that!
Lucca is a gem. A medieval walled city, totaòòy preserved and lived in. We cycled on top of the walls and reckon they are 4kms around! The streets are narrow, winding with tall red roofed buildings sheltering the population below.
There are a number of Towers up to 42 metres high which provide fantastic views of the city.
Lucca has a clos assocation with Ireland too. Its patron saint is Frediano who was an Irish monk. Frediano was possibly St Finnian of Mohill. Originally I though the was St Finnian of Clonard ( a Myshall man) but he ain’t! He is celebrtated in the Basilica di San Frediano. Apparantly he was on his way back from pilgrimage to Rome when he decided to become a hermot on Mt Pisano (the one with the tunnel). And stayed on.
Another link was St Pelligrino. This name was a common term for Irish Monks who went to Europe and he lived in a place now called San Pelligrino, not far from Lucca.
Have a great book at home about these connections called ‘Six months in the Apennines in search of vestiges of Irish Saints by Margaret Stokes written in teh 1800s. Its very interesting. But youd need time and a car to explore the links.
We are still in Lucca as our passports have not yet arived. This is a major problem as we cant move from here. Our aim was to be back for Mary’s concert on Saturday (make sure you all go!) but we are highly unlikely to make it now.
Our plan is to head for San Gimingiano and Sienna, Viterbo and Bolsena and then Rome. There’s a fair bit of biking still to be done!
Still here in Lucca waiting for our passports to arrive.
Some progress though. Had an email address at home for a contact in Bobbio and she has called to the Hotel and got the courier details. Says it should be here today!
In the meantime we are making the most of it.
Lucca is like a step back in time. It really hasnt changed in 100s of years. Ronan thinks hes in the Playstation Game Assassins Creed with all the red rooved old buildings, narrow winding streets, towers, shuttered windows and no traffic!
Its an amazing place. A hive of activity as people go about theire business on foot or by bicycle. Its a city of bikes really. From young t old there’s a bike for everyone here; bikes with baskets, bikes with trailers, tandems and even bikes with fairings (glass screen to protect from wind and rain!).
The streets are alive with people coming and gong and youd wonder what they are actually doing!
Ronan has definitely found the World’s Greatest Gelataria – and I agree. Passports better arrive quickly or all the weight will be back on!
Our passports arrived shortly after the above post. So we left around 12.30 and made great progress to get as far as San Gimignano (75kms).
With a puncture and a broken spoke thrown in it was a good days progress.
Before we set out the mental picture we would have had was of cycling in Tuscany’s rolling hills with cypress and pine trees … and a blue sky.
Well today we had all that. It was a perfect day’s cycling. 31 degrees but with a breeze.
We were both moving well after the rest and easily managed the three or four stiff climbs along the way.
Italy is like a living museum. San Gimignano is even more beautful than Lucca with its 14 Towers making it an incredible sight on the horizon.
We expect to be in Sienna in the morning and sadly our cycle is almost done.
Our plan was to be home by Friday, we are trying for Saturday
Left at 8am and down to main road to Poggibonsi but traffic was crazy and the Poggibonsi to Sienna road isn’t a nice place to be on a bike so we were forced to rail it into Sienna which was just about 20kms away.
Sienna was overrun with Tourists. Tour groups thronged the streets and formed queues at every viewing point or building. The popularity of these places is now beginning to take away from the experience and if I were to do it again I’d give the hotspots a big diversion!
Back to the station and onward to Rome. Met an interesting group of cyclists on the train from Canada, US and Australia. All doing it as a package but with bikes provided and no gear to carry. Luxury! Interestingly the Canadian travelled on an Irish Passport even back into Canada. Apparently nothing better than an Irish Passport when travelling. Less hassle, less hold ups and questions! We should be proud of our standing in the World and protect our reputation.
Finally reached Romana Termini.
After three weeks and 2000kms we were now at our destination. Just like Columbanus and other Irish Pilgrims of the past. Were we the first two Carlovians since Columbanus?
Rome was a culture shock.
Hated it immediately; traffic, noise crazy drivers, lack of information or signage.
I now understand the saying ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’.
Cycling in the City was the scariest part of the whole journey.
Trying to change lanes or cross roads was taking our lives in our hands but after a lot of indecision we learned quickly you just gotta do what the Romans do and launch yourself into the flow! Red lights, traffic lanes mean nothing here.
We were clueless but guessed on which way to go and we decided to head straight for the Vatican to have our Passport signed and obtain our Testimonium. We got there about 6.45 and found the office of Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.
After a 2000km journey what an anticlimax. We were greeted by a sour faced receptionist who told us the office was closed. But I knew 7 was closing time. She was disgusted. After some sighs she reluctantly stamped our Passports and was sending us on our way. I had to demand our Testimonium which were completed grudgingly!
I hadn’t the energy to give out!
Next priority was a bed for the night. We spent over two hours calling into hotels, guest houses, aulbergs trying to get a room. Completo. Completo. Completo. It was dark, we had no lights, had no idea where we were in the city and we were getting desperate. Eventually got a room four floors up but had to bring the bikes up and keep them in the room! Managed to stand them up on the back wheel in the lift.
Met more interesting Canadians later and had a great chat before calling it a night.
Up at 7.30 to try make sense of this city and what we had to do.
Went to the train station to check out transport to the airport with our bikes and find a bike shop that could supply a bike bag.
Walked about 8kms to get the shop; a waste of time as they had none but luckily we got a bus back in to the Station. We decided it would be best to cycle now to the airport and stay out there, check with the airport about the bike situation and come back into town to see some of the marvels of Rome.
Best way out we felt would be, if possible, to travel along the ancient Via Appia. The Roman road that goes all the way to Bari as far as i know. Made of basalt stones it was incredible. Some of it was paved and once we got out of the city it was the highlight of Rome for us.
The edges of the road were lined with fallen columns, large inscribed marble blocks, ancient statutes and shaded by trees. And we had it to our selves. Many of the catacombs are located along the route but we didnt get into see them. Some of the ancient villas of the Senators were also along the road and were being excavated. At one point a flock of sheep came over a boundary wall and down the road towards us with an elderly shepherd and his dogs bringing them home. It was class.
You couldn’t but think of Caesar, the Roman Legions, the Apostles, slaves and prisoners that walked this road in the past.
Got out to Cimpiano and sorted the bike situation.
Headed back into Rome at 4pm and went back to the Vatican where we toured the Basilica. From there we went to the Colliseum and the Forum. Incredible. Inspiring. Rome would need months to explore. The history is everywhere and worth a trip of its own (if you could get rid of the crowds!).
Ancient Rome must gave made some impression on the likes of visitors from around the Roman Empire and beyond. Its magnificence must have been truly awe inspiring and overwhelming.
We had run of time and we had to call a halt as we had to head back to Cimpiano. Cycled to the airport at 7.30 in the morning and we flew home at 11am.
Our pilgrimage was over. We had followed the path of other pilgrims of a far different era and could only be in awe of their bravery, their strength, their commitment. Travelling in 2010 was no picnic; it was potentially life threatening in the time of the establishment of the Irish monastic communities in Europe.