In the 60’s kids like me were lucky enough to have the moon landings, and I had my own fascination with dolphins. Now, everything is dinosaurs, fantasy and near earth orbit. In retrospect, we had the better deal.
Above the stage where school assembly was taken, there hung a huge painting of St Francis of Assisi. He was my favorite saint. Things were not yet clear, but I liked him because the animals liked him. It was in the same way I liked Santa and Mary Poppins, and mostly to do with doing good and feeding birds.
Who would have thought, all these years later I would stand next to the tomb of St Francis. It is strange to be in such a holly place with so many devote people. We are in the same place, but the experience is profoundly different for me, the almost atheist. It is like being on a nudist beach and keeping your clothes on. I am the nominated driver at a piss up, and failing to share the experience.
Getting to Assisi was hard. We set out from Urbino and were straight onto steep roads. It had rained heavily and the descending is nervous. 18% is impossible to do anything more than give in to inertia and walk a bit. Bursts of sun and gloom in equal measure, freezing and baking.
We reach the town of Acqualagna, the home of truffles it pronounces at the town sign. It has, without doubt, got the worst surfaced roads yet in a country of lousy road surfaces. The Romans were master road builders, but the place has lost the knack.
Cagli sits amongst wild looking mountains. They are not snow capped and craggy in the traditional imposing way. It is more a look of not yet being truly tamed, and certainly thickly wooded. You would keep an eye on your pet here. The local paper featured a photo of the corpse of a Wolf, hit by a car just this week. The mountains were ‘ imposing ‘ and we were imposed upon. A shot and then two more from somewhere in the woods as we pass, and enter a deep gorge.
The main road and the minor one we are on are twisting through the same deep valley both looking for the best line. It has the advantage of the occasional tunnel and we go up and over. A local rider stops to help us. He knows a pitch for the tent and offers his 7Kg bike for me to lift. It is a great wild camp.
A stream, green with calcium runs with the perfect level of chatter, just behind the tent. We are using 100 octane petrol in our stove. If you had to guess which car mad nation would offer such spicy fuel, you would probably guess right. It is cold so deep in the mouth of the gorge, with evening early and bed before 7.00.
Cantiano, and already we have had the most perfect of stops for coffee. Italy is so good at coffee and often in the most unlikely of venues. Back home, the equivalent place would give you a brew as pale as a nuns complexion. The Italians are destined to make great coffee, we are in the best place in the known universe and stop having done less than 5Km.
It is Sunday morning, and old ladies have their somber clothes on. The peloton of local carbon warriors are bright as budgies, as they leave town. There is no concept here of a rough training bike. It is deep rim wheels and carbon exotica with primary colours or nothing. The town is perfectly out of time. You could shoot a period drama here and would not need to change a thing. The square has that most perfect of balance. Three churches, three coffees. 6% and 7% grades take us out and back up to the 600m contour.
We are on a minor road to Gubbio. Up to 660m, and then we drop through switchbacks rimmed with woodland. It is just a heartbeat away from dropping it’s leaves and calling it winter. A sharp night of frost here will change everything.
Gubbio is stunning. Plazza after perfect plazza with cafe and bars and the most stunning of understated architecture. It is off the tourist map today, and may well be most days. It is cool enough and warm enough to have a cashmere across the shoulders or wear one of those padded coats they love here. You could do both and be dressed just right, and you could even have a scarf, but don’t need it.
We are now in Umbria, and it is still hilly. Another 15Km and we have another wild camp with spectacular views of rolling hills topped with castles and churches picked out by what is now a low sun. This is perfect, absolutely perfect.
It is a cold night with a heavy dew that shows snail trails. Night time passage picked out by a strong morning sun from a perfect blue. It is hot enough by 9.15 that we dab sun screen on our noses. I love the smell, a smell of holidays from school. I may just put some on my nose next time we have a bad day.
Back on the SP298. A road so blissfully curvaceous, its curves make idiots of middle-aged men on powerful motorbikes. Roadside memorials to Sunday rides, sons, fathers. We take a minor left onto a narrow road with even worse surface. The village of Piccione, and first coffee and the day warms even more.
There are quiet roads to the base of the hill that Assisi sits on, and we drop at 15% to pick them up. The climate has changed dramatically as we have come down the mountain. There are olive trees, and a dryness to the air, summer heat not long ago. The roof pitch less steep on homes. The town of Assisi dominates the horizon as we get close. It is another Unesco World Heritage Site, which I bet you guessed.
We are worn out from climbing and need a two day break. What a place to pick and perfect weather for sitting at cafes. There are nuns, padre and devotional pilgrims from all over the world. We stash the bikes and go up to the tomb of St Francis. It is breathtaking. It may be the work of Giotto, some say yes, others no. It is certainly one of the most inspiring buildings of faith we have seen. It is busy, very busy and we missed the pope by just a few days – Pope Francis, here to pay his respects to another Francis.