Sunday and Monday, September 14 and 15
Okay, this is becoming a real pilgrimage now. You’ll remember an earlier post titled, “Training for Enjoyment,” where I indicated that a key to this adventure was to find a pace that allowed me to enjoy the experience rather than just successfully complete it.
Three years ago I embarked on a very personal pilgrimage through the Western United States that covered over 4,000 miles and routed me over five mountain ranges and one fairly imposing Nevada desert. During that pilgrimage I averaged 65 miles a day six days a week. As I began planning this pilgrimage I wanted to make sure that I allowed more space to enjoy, ponder and allow the experience to come to me. So I intentionally set a timeline that would require only 80 kilometers (50 miles, essentially) a day, six days a week AND I allowed a full extra two weeks of flex time. Easy-peasy, right?
With the exception of one butt-kicking climb yesterday the riding has been very enjoyable. I have not arrived at the end of the day exhausted and wishing I had a personal nanny to attend to all of my needs. But, what I did not account for is how much energy it takes to be in a foreign country. I have mentioned the logistical issues which continue to plague me (the attachment to my bicycle computer broke the first day and I haven’t used it since, and my WordPress site is almost non-functional at this point which is why no pictures have shown up in recent posts).
But, I have still have not found a way to get the proper rhythm to my diet. I am all for appreciating another culture, but the rhythm of their social life has not fit the rhythm of my cycling. Dinner places don’t open until 8:00 p.m. and don’t actually fill up until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. In Benevento there was a party scene in the piazza below my window until nearly 2:00 a.m. The next morning I asked if it was a special holiday or if it was like that every Saturday night. The man who had just enough English to communicate with me replied casually, “No, after 10:00 p.m. people tend to come out.”
The same was true last night in the pilgrimage destination town of San Giovanni Rotondo. I was beat after a particularly brutal finish to the day up a four kilometer switch-backed grade that averaged between 8-11%. I went to bed at 10:00 p.m. I know when my body is about ready to shut down when I begin getting chills and a tingling sensation throughout my body. I hit that point just 500 meters from the top (which was still a ten minute ride at 5 kph) and crawled into the Tabacchi (not “Tarrachi” as I spelled it earlier) where I gorged on Italian style-Gatorade, potato chips, an ice cream sandwich and water to propel me the last two kilometers into town.
The convent where I am staying (through Monastery Stays) advertised a breakfast in the morning. I now know not to expect much by American standards. Breakfast in the hotels consists of a cappuccino and pre-packaged toasts (like our Melba toasts) and in some places, a glass of juice, yogurt and a piece of fruit. Again, this is not a diss on Italian culture. With their late night, every night party scene who wants a Denny’s Triple Ranchers’ breakfast at 8:00 in the morning? Answer—only a foreign tourist riding his bike through the country burning 5,000 calories a day!
On my last pilgrimage I developed a routine of three pancakes, two eggs, two pieces of bacon, lots of water, 16 oz. orange juice and a few cups of coffee to begin my day. That way I could snack the rest of the day on fruit and Power Bars without having to stop for a full meal that wouldn’t sit well on my stomach later in the ride. Here I am starting on snack food and eating snack food all day until my one full meal in the evening. And with that I often have to wait until after 8:00 p.m. to get and, if I show up right at 8:00 p.m. I am the lone soul in the restaurant. It doesn’t usually fill up until I am about ready to leave. And that’s not much fun!
Which brings me back to my first point—this is really becoming a real pilgrimage now. Konya now is not just my final stop, but now is becoming the summit of a mountain. With negotiating my way by bike in a foreign country being more challenging than I anticipated, I am a little sobered by the fact that just as I get used to the Italian ways, I will do this again in Greece. And then once again in Turkey. Phew!
It felt good to share that with you.
Now to the riding itself. Wow! I wished I could duplicate Sunday’s experience repeatedly. I left Benevento late in the morning (remember that was the day I just HAD to blog in order to connect). Because breakfast consisted of a one ounce espresso, a box of juice with a sippy straw, and a packaged preservative-laden croissant, I stopped at a bar and doubled my breakfast with an Americano caffe, a fresh bakery croissant and another juice. No protein anywhere!
Getting out of Benevento was much easier than getting into it. My first stop would be Pietralcina, the birthplace of Padre Pio. Padre Pio is as big in this part of Italy as Vince Lombardi is in Wisconsin. The whole town of Pietralcina is essentially a monument to Padre Pio and his life and ministry. Today I hope to do more reading in English so that I actually know what the big deal is. I have been following his influence all the way from the west coast of Italy as there are statues in town squares and pictures in the windows of homes. A few people have asked me, “Are you on a Padre Pio pilgrimage?”
I arrived there on a Sunday and unlike my experiences in Rome, the church was packed for Mass. The town has taken on the character of the usual tourist destinations with curio shops and little pizzerias. But, the two churches seem to hold onto their sacred character as attendees are informed of appropriate dress, protocol, and behavior once you enter the sanctuary.
After leaving Pietralcina, I spent the day climbing, climbing, climbing. This part of Italy does not have mountains like Colorado, but there are a series of hills to propel oneself over in order to cross from western Italy to the eastern coast. The hills were not taxing. In fact, they lent themselves to a really nice assertive rhythm. That, combined with the almost non-existent traffic (maybe one car every three to four kilometers) and the rolling countryside feel left me feeling like I was in a bit of biking heaven. I could do this every day!
I had one massive hill, the worst (or best, depending on how one feels at the time) of the day to finish in San Bartolomeo de Galdo. I met an older couple walking who waved me down with smiles on their faces. We negotiated our way through our language barriers. It was clear that I was to go looking for the Hotel Michelango. It was just what I needed. With its name I was anticipating a 200 year old historic relic. Instead, it was only recently constructed and the manager treated me to a beer while he worked with my passport and arrangements. Plus, the price was the same I had paid the night before for what was something less than a college dorm room.
I awoke the next day to the promise of another Italian breakfast, but this time there was the usual fare, plus a plate of cheeses, Italian meats and a few boiled eggs. I am sure that I ate more than my share as I was thankful that I could start the day with some real substance.
Monday was a day of different stages. I immediately descended a hill that was too steep to really enjoy. I had to constantly keep my brakes on to negotiate the corners and keep my heavy load from throwing me side to side. “What goes down must come up” and at the bottom of the steep grade I was met with an almost equally steep incline that took me nearly an hour to conquer.
I wasn’t yet to the top when I encountered my scariest monster of the trip. I should have been thankful that the engineers didn’t make me climb another twenty minutes to the top, but the sight of this tunnel made me shiver. It was long. I could barely see the light coming from the opposite side of the mountain. There was no shoulder and only a very thin walkway just wide enough for a body, but certainly not a body and bike. Plus it was dungeon-like dark, wet and smelly.
I was thankful that I was only seeing a few vehicles every kilometer. So I surveyed the scene, put my blinking tail light on, waited until no vehicles were coming from behind me and made a run for it. It was freaky scary! The tunnel had a few lights but they were inconsistent, lighting up maybe 50 meters and then going completely dark for 100 meters. I did make it, but not without some trepidation. As headlights appeared behind me at the beginning of the tunnel I would dismount my bike, hop over the guard rail so that my body was protected and leaving my bike sticking out three feet into the lane. I just hoped and prayed that every vehicle could see my two inch blinker. I did this several times and emerged alive, but with scratches and bruises on my legs from negotiating a guard rail that I could feel, but not see.
“What goes up must come down” and so I cascaded down another not quite so steep grade that took me into the plains of Italy. It reminded me very much of riding through western Idaho with the exception that it was not quite as dry or hot. I was reminded how much I love cycling in open country. I once again hit long stretches where I didn’t see vehicles for many kilometers and just pedaled easily through tomato crops, tilled plots, lazy little towns, and around tractors. At one point I sat on my bike ten feet from open pasture sheep and goats standing on their hind legs shredding small trees of their leaves.
I suppose the day ended the way it should for a pilgrimage site. San Giovanni Rotondo is nestled in the cleavage between two mountains and is not obvious except from the air. My legs were already tired from the earlier grade at the beginning of the day, from one of my longer days, and a headwind during the final kilometers. I looked at the switchbacks that were still awaiting me and just said, “Shit! This is going to hurt.” I hadn’t hurt that much since Trail Ridge Road in Colorado in 2011.
I made it and today I will take care of logistics (yes, again and still and forever…) and I will take some time to get to know Padre Pio and his mysticism and influence on the people of Italy. And my butt really needs a rest!